Here are a few things you might want to watch for tonight...
As noted below, both Nebraska and Stanford are strong in the front row. This match may very well be decided in the back row. If Jessica Fishburn plays as well as she did against Washington, Stanford has a shot. If not... [Let's not go there.]
The Net Effect
Hate to run down a Pac-10 opponent, but Washington had a very tough night at the net on Thursday. There is not a shred of doubt that Nebraska will be much stronger up front tonight. Do not expect Stanford's "bigs" to dominate the way the did on Thursday
Arrow Up or Arrow Down?
That brings us to our big concern. It is "our" concern here in Omaha, because Mini keeps dwelling on this point.
Stanford cannot possibly play better than it did on Thursday. The Cardinal might not have to play quite as well to win on Saturday, but there is very little margin for error. Picking a figure out of the air, let's say that Stanford has to play 90% as well as it did in the Washington match to have a chance tonight. Even if it does, there will be a feeling that things are not going as well. [There is no way Stanford holds Nebraska to the teens in multiple games.] In sports, momentum is a dangerous thing. Even when you are playing well, but the external indicators say you are not doing as well as in the recent past, it can get into your head. If you are playing "not so well," the snowball starts getting big in a hurry as it heads down the hill.
On the other hand, Nebraska can play a lot better than it did on Thursday. Sarah Pavan had a rough game and a half. [Admittedly, she was brilliant after that.] Jordan Larson served like it was her job to get souvenir game balls to the crowd, and she is ordinarily a solid server. Nebraska has already had its stretch of nervousness and bad play, and it has survived it. Most likely, the Huskers will play much better on Saturday. So the Nebraska arrow is likely to be pointing "up."
That is the momentum concern I cannot squash, even as I start to believe that Stanford has a shot to win this match. As someone who has seen it happen in sports, trials, politics, and elsewhere in life, I have this nagging fear that Stanford might have peaked too soon.
Setting It Up
As I understand it, Nebraska is trying to become only the second team in NCAA history to win a women's volleyball title under the direction of a freshman setter, Rachel Holloway. The first? Stanford in 2004, with Bryn Kehoe. If the match on Saturday tracks the season, Kehoe will be brilliant if the passing is good. [See above.] Nebraska's freshman setter must be quite good, because Coach John Cook moved his returning setter, Dani Busboom, to libero. How will Holloway handle the pressure of the final game?
Strong Up the Middle
Both middle blockers, Stanford's Foluke Akinradewo and Nebraska's Tracy Stalls, had great nights on Thursday. Indeed, one could argue that Nebraska might be toast now, if Stalls had not kept things under control until Pavan and, later, Larson, got their games in shape. If being strong up the middle is as important in volleyball as it is in baseball, both teams appear to be in good shape.
There's No Place Like Home
Without a doubt, Nebraska will have a huge home court advantage tonight. More on that in a moment, but one aspect now: officiating. It is unrealistic to expect that 16,863 (see below) people screaming for one team will not lead to the occasional close judgment call going to that team. That is just human nature. In a close match, that could be a factor. [I do not know enough about volleyball officiating to say this, but it seemed like the "two hits" calls were coming pretty fast and furious against UCLA on Thursday.]
We Are Not Nebraska [a.k.a. "There Is No Place Like Nebraska"]
Which brings us to the 2,000 pound gorilla in this discussion: Those 16,863 people screaming support for Nebraska. [You can check my math: 17,013 (in attendance on Thursday) - 150 (tickets in Stanford's allotment) + 2 (tickets from the Stanford allotment immediately in front of MiniMizzouCard and me, occupied by Nebraska fans) – 2 (for the loyal Midwestern Bootie and his wife who were able to acquire tickets through an amazingly fortunate series of events). I think that is 16,863. I have assigned all available tickets to Nebraska, assuming the UCLA and Washington fans have no sold their tickets to the locals.]
That is a huge boost for Nebraska. The only way it works against them is if they get nervous. When almost 17,000 people in the same building feel something they desperately want slipping away, the nervousness spreads its way through the building pretty quickly. It can even reach the court. But that has already happened to Nebraska - during the first game and a half on Thursday. It is not likely to happen again. So that huge crowd is almost certainly going to work in Nebraska's favor tonight.
Thus, the key question regarding the crowd is how will Stanford handle all that noise and enthusiasm? It is difficult to tell, because there is no strong evidence of similar circumstances in the past. The match on Thursday is no indicator, except in suggesting that Stanford can hold its concentration, because that atmosphere was on other end of the spectrum. The trip to Hawaii early in the season should help a bit. Only Hawaii comes close to matching the enthusiasm of the Nebraska fan base.
There really is no place like Nebraska, when it comes to volleyball - at least this year. This Final Four is the College World Series (Omaha's most treasured event) and (almost) a Nebraska home football game (Nebraska's most treasured event) rolled into one. The latter requires the "almost" qualifier because they can only squeeze 17,000 fans into the Qwest Center, while the stadium in Lincoln holds about five times as many. And volleyball is not as important to Nebraskans as football. But it is in second place.
16,863 people screaming for their team. If Stanford can handle that, it would be some accomplishment.
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