A thunderous home crowd. A near-perfect opening game. The stage seemed so perfectly set for a storybook finish for the Nebraska volleyball team that you had to ask if it was too good to be true.
It turned out, it was.
Fifth-seeded Oregon shook off a disastrous start and rallied to beat fourth-seeded Nebraska 15-25, 25-22, 25-18, 25-17 in the NCAA Omaha Regional final at CenturyLink Center. The Ducks move on to the final four for the first time in school history and will play top-seeded Penn State on Thursday in Louisville, Ky.
Nebraska (26-7) rode an early wave in a first set where everything went right, to the delight of a home crowd of 9,382 fans. But as the match wore on, Oregon (29-4) found its bearings powered by senior outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, the regional's outstanding player.
Bergsma, who will be one of the favorites for national player of the year honors next weekend, led all players with 23 kills, hit .429 and added 11 digs.
During a Game 4 timeout, with the Ducks within sight of winning their first regional championship, coach Jim Moore gave a mandate to his setter, Lauren Plum, that the fate of every crucial point would ride on Bergsma's right arm.
“I told Lauren she didn't get to set anybody (else) at the very end,” Moore said. “I said 'Set her every single ball.' We've just grown to expect it. We want to distribute the ball and we want to get the ball to everybody because it does make Alaina's life easier.”
With Oregon leading 2-1 in sets, Bergsma ensured there would be no decisive fifth game after the Huskers took a 12-11 lead in Game 4. She tied the game with a kill on the next rally, and then added four more kills down the stretch as the Ducks won 10 of 11 rallies to end the match.
“Bergsma may be the best player we've played against all year,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.
“I mean, she was the difference in the match. It was like a heavyweight prize fight. We had to go blow-for-blow with her. When she made a big kill, we needed to make a big kill. We weren't able to sustain that.”
The Game 4 spurt was the final of a series of runs Oregon was able to put together after taking Nebraska's best shot in Game 1. The Huskers hit .621 in the opener, with 19 kills and just one attack error. Morgan Broekhuis and Meghan Haggerty each had five kills, and Gina Mancuso added four more in Game 1 as Nebraska used an early 9-2 run to blow open the set.
“I think we came out with a lot of energy and we just executed,” said Nebraska setter Lauren Cook, who had 46 assists in her final college match. “We did our game plan. We all did what we were supposed to do. We were low-error.”
Mancuso had 16 kills and 15 digs in her collegiate finale, and junior opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis also had 16 kills and hit .406, but Nebraska was unable to sustain the Game 1 momentum.
Moore said the Ducks weren't necessarily nervous to play in the school's first regional final. In fact, Oregon may have lacked urgency, and Game 1 certainly delivered it in time for the Ducks to show their poise in what might have been the match's defining stretch in Game 2.
Moore called time out after Nebraska had three blocks in a 6-1 run to take a 12-11 lead, expecting the need to settle his players' nerves.
“That's where they showed their toughness,” Moore said. “I called timeout at 11-9, and they sat down and nobody was going crazy. Nobody was worried. They just sat down and went, 'OK, it's just one at a time, one at a time, one at a time.' That's what they did. They stayed within themselves, except for maybe the beginning of Game 1.”
Liz Brenner had two kills and an ace out of the timeout to put the Ducks up 14-12, and Nebraska was never able to recover. Bergsma had seven kills in the game, and the Huskers shot themselves in the foot with six attack errors.
“We had four swings to put Game 2 away and made errors on all four of them,” John Cook said. “I think if we had those four swings back and convert those, we might win this match 3-0. Your margin for error is so small. That gave Oregon life and confidence. They took advantage of it and did a great job. We couldn't get it back.”
With the ship steadied, Oregon began to impose its will on both ends of the court. The Huskers hit .125 combined in Games 3 and 4 as the Ducks began to get touches on Husker attacks at the net and got the ball to Plum, one of the nation's finest setters, who transitioned them into kills.
As the match wore on, most of the long rallies went Oregon's way. Middle blocker Ariana Williams had 13 kills and Katherine Fischer added 12, hitting a combined .420.
“I would say Oregon is the best offensive team we've played the entire year. Absolutely, hands down,” Mancuso said. “They're quick. They're powerful. They run weird sets that aren't normal, but they're good at it.”
For Oregon, Saturday marked the highest step in Moore's rebuilding job. Two years ago, the Ducks missed the NCAA tournament and finished seventh in the Pac-12, which then had only 10 teams.
For the Huskers, it marked the end of the careers of a decorated senior class that achieved every goal except earning a berth in the final four. That realization crashed down heavy. Lauren Cook came to the podium still in tears. Mancuso answered questions after lengthy pauses.
The hurt was too fresh to reflect on a four-year stretch where Nebraska won titles in two conferences and slayed every dragon except advancing to college volleyball's biggest stage.
“I think it's just tough to answer right now,” Mancuso said. “It's still stinging pretty hard for both of us, and I'm sure the other seniors. The last thing I can say is Nebraska is always going to be a top program, and people are always going to expect greatness here when you're a part of this program, and that's what you'll get.”
John Cook, though, offered a proud perspective. This senior class might not have had the raw skills of some vintage Husker teams, but Mancuso, Lauren Cook, Hannah Werth and reserves Paige Hubl and Allison McNeal steered the team past a disappointing finish a year ago and into the regional final for the second time in four years.
Not all stories have a happy ending, but Nebraska's five seniors still wrote a tale worth telling.
“They had done everything possible,” the coach said. “I really believe we maxed out, this group. With what we have, we really maxed it out. Probably got about as much out of this team as we could. We're four or five errors away from being in Louisville right now. There's no regrets or second-guessing. I'm not going to lose sleep tonight wondering what else we should have done.”
Oregon (29-4) ................. 15 25 25 25
Nebraska (26-7) ................. 25 22 18 17
UO (kills-aces-blocks): Bergsma 23-0-1, Williams 13-0-1, Fischer 12-0-2, Brenner 9-1-3, Plum 1-1-2, Finley 0-0-3, DeFelice 0-0-2, Kawasaki 0-2-0, Bettndorf 0-1-0.
NU: Mancuso 16-0-0, Broekhuis 16-1-1, Werth 10-0-1, Haggerty 8-0-3, Thramer 6-0-5, Cook 1-0-4, Dykstra 0-1-0.
Set assists: UO 54 (Plum 52), NU 54 (Cook 46).