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NCAA Volleyball Final Four Preview: Trends and Predictions

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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.

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.

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: 

  • No. 2 Kentucky vs No. 6 Washington, 7:00pm ET on ESPN2. 
  • No. 1 Wisconsin vs No. 4 Texas, 9:00pm ET on ESPN2.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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