TAMPA, Fla. — You need confidence to be a Division I starter as a freshman for one of the best programs in your sport. So it’s no surprise Nebraska freshman outside hitter Harper Murray didn’t hesitate when asked about how the Huskers would respond to being swept by Texas in Sunday’s NCAA women’s volleyball final.
“I think we’re going to win three national championships the next three years,” Murray said.
The Huskers, who fell short of earning the program’s sixth title Sunday, have no seniors. After finishing this season 33-2, it won’t be a surprise to see them start next season ranked No. 1.
“We’ve had a heck of a year — one of the greatest seasons we have ever had at Nebraska,” said coach John Cook, whose 2023 team had four freshmen in key roles. “So this match isn’t going to define that and what we’ve accomplished this year. But hopefully it will motivate us for a great run and get back here in 2024.”
That said, you can expect Texas to contend for the title again next season, too, along with some of the usual top teams. That includes last year’s runner-up, Louisville — which will host the national semifinals and final in December 2024 — and the Cardinals’ ACC rival Pitt. The Panthers made their third final four appearance in a row this year.
Wisconsin, the only team besides Texas to defeat Nebraska this season, will return national player of the year Sarah Franklin for her fifth season. Franklin underwent surgery in June due to blood clots in her shoulder, then returned to action by the start of this season and led Wisconsin to Tampa. The Badgers lost to Texas in the national semifinals and will be eager to chase their program’s second NCAA title next fall.
Stanford loses Pac-12 player of the year Kendall Kipp, but the Cardinal always reload. To that end, with 2023 in the books, let’s reflect on the season and look forward to the volleyball’s future.
Goodbye Big 12, hello SEC
The SEC didn’t have a women’s volleyball champion until the COVID-delayed 2020 NCAA tournament, played in April 2021 and won by Kentucky. The team the Wildcats beat in that final? Texas, which joins the SEC next season along with Oklahoma.
After Sunday’s championship match in Tampa, Texas’ Jerritt Elliott mentioned he has SEC coaches meetings to attend in January as he dives into a new conference. The Longhorns have been in the Big 12 since 1996, with Elliott as coach since 2001.
A powerhouse like Texas can only help strengthen the SEC. And Elliott thinks that league’s growth in volleyball has been noteworthy even before the four-time NCAA champion Longhorns join.
“Right now, my goal is to be an influence on the SEC to really promote this sport,” Elliott said. “Obviously, SEC women’s basketball is having a lot of success. We need women’s basketball to be good. We need women’s volleyball to be good. We want to join hands with [basketball] to let people know how great women’s sports are.”
The Pac-12 break-up
College women’s volleyball first bloomed as a West Coast sport. Seven programs from the current Pac-12 have made the national semifinals at least once, with four of them winning the NCAA championship. Leading the way is Stanford, which has a record nine NCAA titles.
The ACC has never won a national championship in volleyball. We’ll see how Stanford and Cal coming aboard next season impacts the league. Louisville and Pitt have changed the ACC’s profile in the past few seasons, but Stanford’s success is at a whole different level.
Meanwhile, past national champions USC, UCLA and Washington, plus final four participant Oregon join an already loaded Big Ten. Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State move into the Big 12, which will be very different without the giant presence Texas has been in that league.
Progress on replay?
The national semifinals and finals weren’t slowed down much by lengthy challenge reviews, but there were some almost excruciatingly long reviews during the rest of the NCAA tournament. In the regional semifinal between Texas and Tennessee, reviews contributed to the five-set match lasting more than three hours.
The speed of the game and the difficulty of clearly seeing things like touch calls have made replay a critical part of the sport. The big key for replay to be better and more expedient lies in the system used, which in turn is dependent on how much money is spent on it.
Elliott said he is excited about the volleyball challenge system the SEC will use next season, which involves more cameras and camera angles.
“There’s some urgency behind it for sure,” Elliott said. “Because it’s really hard to see [now], and it’s really unfair to the referees and announcers, because they’re sitting there anywhere from two to five minutes to try to figure out what the best camera angle is.”
Professional league launching
Volleyball’s most successful pro leagues are in other countries, but we’re about to see a new U.S-based league try to make a go of it.
The Pro Volleyball Federation begins play Jan. 24 in seven cities and runs 16 weeks, with championship weekend May 16-19. The teams are the Atlanta Vibe, Columbus Fury, Grand Rapids Rise, Omaha Supernovas, Orlando Valkyries, San Diego Mojo and Vegas Thrill.
Texas’ middle blocker Asjia O’Neal was the first player taken, by Columbus, in the recent college draft last week.
“I think it’s honestly so exciting that we have these opportunities to play here in America,” O’Neal said. “This past summer playing with the national team, I was able to see how other countries love volleyball and how they go all out for it. I really hope that’s a level we can get to here.”