The road to Tampa has been set for the 2023 NCAA Women's Volleyball Final Four teams.
On Sunday, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Texas, or Wisconsin will lift the trophy and be crowned national champions.
One side of the bracket features two young teams led by freshmen with a newfound pressure to lead their squads to a champion finish. The other side hosts the 2021 and 2022 champions in Wisconsin and Texas—two teams with experienced players finding themselves in familiar territory.
No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh: December 14 at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN
The first regional final took place in the Pittsburgh region between two rival teams who have followed each other closely throughout the season. One team may look better on paper, but tense rivalries mean anything can happen. Last season, the Louisville Cardinals defeated Pittsburgh to move onto the championship. This year, the story was reversed in the quarterfinal, as the Panthers woke up in the third set with freshmen Torrey Swafford and Olivia Babcock leading them to victory in a reverse sweep.
The Panthers come into the final four with a chip on their shoulder. After losing to Nebraska in the semifinal in 2021 and to rival Louisville last year, the third time might be charm. Pittsburgh is firing on all cylinders offensively and playing fearlessly. If their freshman can handle the pressure, it will be exciting to see how poised they are against the No. 1 team in the country. ACC setter of the year Rachel Fairbanks will run most of the offense as well as hit from the right side. Emma Monks will also be a defensive asset as one of the best blockers in the country. There's also Babcock, who just recorded her 400th kill and is hitting .311 for the season.
Nebraska dropped their first set of the NCAA tournament when they matched up against Arkansas. After being down late in the first set, the Huskers came storming back to claim set one and didn’t let up until they won the second set, 25-14. Jill Gillen made life hard for Nebraska in the third set, but the Huskers, led by Merritt Beason and Harper Murray, eventually pulled off a 3-1 win at home. The Huskers struggled earlier in the season when they lost a set or fell behind, but Merritt Beason and Lexi Rodriguez have emerged as true team leaders for this young team. Despite five new additions to Nebraska’s starting lineup, four being freshmen, they have shown they can handle the pressure that comes with playing for a team with a final four mentality.
Like for the Panthers, the Huskers have the Big Ten freshman and setter of the year and sophomore Bekka Allick is second in the nation in blocks. As a team, they're second in the nation in blocks per set and fourth in the nation in digs per set. What will be important for Nebraska is to not lose focus when they are down and maintain intensity through each set.
No. 3 Wisconsin vs No. 5 Texas: December 14 at 9:30 p.m. EST (or 30 minutes after Neb-Pitt ends) on ESPN
Reigning national champion Texas has overcome a lot of adversity this season after losing All Americans in every position and struggling to get the team going. However, once they found their footing, they didn't slow down. Madi Skinner is an immovable force at the net and has tallied over 20 kills in four consecutive games. She is a National Player of the Year contender and was named Big 12 Player of the Year. Skinner had a season-high 26 kills in the Longhorns' five set thriller against Tennessee in the regional semifinal and hit .386 in the regional semifinal against Stanford. The Longhorns almost got rattled by Tennessee, but the experience of playing in the final last year combined with the energy that new players brought made a difference for the group.
Texas is a gritty team that knows what is expected of them and thrives under pressure. Ella Swindle will have to play smart against the best blocking team in the nation. Texas' Skinner has over 200 more kills than Jenna Wenaas, who is second on the kill list. Swindle must make sure she doesn’t overload Skinner and make the offense predictable.
Middle blocker Asjia O´Neal is a true competitor who is almost hitting .400 on the season. She will have to step up alongside Minnesota transfer Wenaas, who has struggled to settle in at Texas, but learned how to play smarter as the season progressed. Look for Wisconsin’s hitters to hit away from Emma Halter who was named on the Big 12 All-Rookie team and is recording almost four digs per set. Texas knows exactly what they are capable of and needs to play to their strengths in the semifinal.
The Wisconsin Badgers have really solidified themselves as one of the top programs in college volleyball. Clinching the title in 2021 and falling short in the regional final to Pittsburgh in 2022, they are hungry to regain the title of national champions after defeating Oregon 3-1 in Madison. The Ducks had more kills, but Wisconsin's 16 blocks to Oregon’s four is a testament to the defensive giant this Badger team is.
Head Coach Kelly Sheffield has assembled a team consisting of star players all around. One of the significant changes he made from last season was switching Julia Orzol from outside hitter to libero, moving Gulce Guctekin to defensive specialist. When junior Anna Smrek was out for a few matches mid-season, Orzol stepped back into her role as outside and didn’t miss a beat.
Wisconsin is playing absolutely lights out and it will be crucial for them that Smrek is healthy if they want to slow Texas and Skinner down. At 6´9, Smrek is a big presence at the net. She had a season-high seven blocks in the regional final against Oregon. Big Ten Player of the Year Sarah Franklin has been a prominent figure throughout the season as well. She has had a season that will be hard to replicate, and is another player who has been mentioned in the race for National Player of the Year.
Sheffield has been running a 6-2 with Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill setting, and if they do go all the way, it will the first time a team has won the championship running a 6-2 since 2003.
As the 2023 Final Four unfolds in Tampa, it's clear that each team brings a unique blend of experience, talent, and determination. Fans can expect thrilling matches and intense competition as these teams battle for the prestigious title of 2023 National Champions.