Four teams remain in the NCAA volleyball tournament, including top-seed Wisconsin and No. 2 seed Kentucky.
The Badgers came into the tournament as the still-reigning national runner ups, having lost to Stanford in 2019. For Kentucky, it’s the program’s first-ever trip to a Final Four.
Here’s what to expect when they take the court Thursday against Texas and Washington.
No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 4 Texas Longhorns
Unlike every other team in the Final Four, Wisconsin is led by a middle blocker, 6’8” Dana Rettke. Rettke is set up by Sydney Hilley, combining to form one of the most dangerous duos in college volleyball. Hilley has been able to find Rettke in big moments, including against Florida, allowing Wisconsin to stay alive in a five-set thriller and advance to the Final Four.
The Badger duo depends on ball control in order to be dangerous. When the Badgers pass and defend at a high enough level to find Retke as often as they need to, they’re virtually unstoppable. Against Texas, the outside hitter pair of Grace Loberg and Molly Haggerty will be asked to hold the offense down when ball control is lacking, but that’s not how the Badgers will win a ticket to the finals. Where Loberg and Haggerty shine is when the ball is passed or dug well enough to make the other team think about the Badger middles. This will be a challenge against Texas, who is an incredibly high hitting and aggressive team. Texas has a number of tough servers, including Logan Eggleston, who has been an ace machine in the tournament. Serving tough will challenge Wisconsin’s passing game, forcing Haggerty and Loberg to take out of system swings while potentially neutralizing Rettke.
The Longhorns entered the NCAA Tournament firing on all cylinders, and they will continue to look to their leading scorer Eggleston to take a lot of swings. As a six rotation outside hitter, she is a constant threat on the floor from both the pipe and outside pin. The biggest offensive threat in the Final Four, she has the ability to take over a match.
"I committed to Texas because I want to play in games like that and make it to Final Fours." @TexasVolleyball is headed back to the Final Four after beating Nebraska 3-1 #HookEm @loganeggleston_ @cbsaustin pic.twitter.com/HIgmWm0c1e— Jeff Barker (@JeffBarker_) April 19, 2021
"I committed to Texas because I want to play in games like that and make it to Final Fours." @TexasVolleyball is headed back to the Final Four after beating Nebraska 3-1 #HookEm @loganeggleston_ @cbsaustin pic.twitter.com/HIgmWm0c1e
Sophomore Skylar Fields has likewise had a breakout tournament on the left pin, terminating 18 kills with a .630 clip against Nebraska to send Texas on to the semis. The Eggleston and Fields duo is orchestrated by setter Jhenna Gabriel, who will also be tasked with getting Asjia O’Neal involved. O’Neal has absolutely dominated this tournament when Texas can pass well enough to find her.
The Texas serve receive will be challenged by Wisconsin, who play aggressive from the line. Assuming Wisconsin will target Eggleston, we will see if she can continue to carry a huge load for her team. Gabriel is the smallest setter in the Final Four, and Wisconsin may try to exploit that by setting the left pin, but their main offense weapon is still Rettke, who will be going up against two of the biggest blockers Texas has on the left side pin.
My pick: Texas. What the Longhorns lack in serve receive, Eggleton and Fields make up for with their ability to play the high-ball game, allowing the Longhorns to spring the upset.
No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats vs No. 6 Washington Huskies
The Kentucky Wildcats have made their first ever Final Four appearance by playing high energy volleyball. Madison Lilley is a phenomenal setter who looks to Alli Stumler to take a lot of swings. The duo has been playing together for three years and they set the offensive pace for the team. When Stumler goes to the back row, Avery Skinner brings the one-two punch with her attack from the outside pin.
This team could not run the offense they do without Gabby Curry, a three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year winner. From serve receive to defense, she takes up a lot of court and plays the ball with the accuracy needed for Lilley to run the offense.
Soaking it all in (literally)! 💙#NCAAVB x 🎥 @KentuckyVBpic.twitter.com/szRTm2h8Bw— NCAA Women's Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) April 20, 2021
Soaking it all in (literally)! 💙#NCAAVB x 🎥 @KentuckyVBpic.twitter.com/szRTm2h8Bw
The struggle for Kentucky will be managing Washington’s aggressive serving. The Huskies will avoid Curry like the plague, likely targeting the seam between Skinner and Stumler when it’s available, and otherwise targeting Stumler alone.
This is Washington’s first Final Four since 2013. Ella May Powell, Washington’s All American setter, runs a fast-paced triple threat offense. Pin hitters Samantha Drechsel, Shannon Crenshaw, and Madi Endsley lead the team in kills, while Washington’s defense depends on aggressive service, allowing the team to utilize their size at the net.
The ability to keep teams out of system while remaining dynamic in blocking the high ball is what has kept Washington alive in the tournament so far. Their offense is pin-based, which means they don’t need a perfect pass to deliver the ball to their go-to hitter. With the block Washington will see from Kentucky, it will be crucial to keep the pass centrally located enough to make the middle guess which pin it will go to. While they’re certainly the underdogs, the Huskies have shown they can thrive with their backs against the wall.
My pick: Kentucky. I think the Wildcats and Huskies play a similar pin-dominated game, but that Kentucky plays it a little bit faster and more consistently in transition. If Kentucky can continue to play low-error volleyball in high-ball situations, Washington is going to have a difficult time finding momentum.
Tune in on Thursday: