Wisconsin won the 2021 NCAA volleyball championship on Saturday, marking the second time this calendar year the sport crowned a new champion.
Kentucky claimed the national title in April when the fall 2020 season was pushed to the spring of 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Wildcats’ reign atop the sport lasted just under eight months, as the season returned to its normal place in the fall.
The Badgers’ road to their first championship did not come easy. They outlasted previously unbeaten Louisville in the semifinals and overcame a 1-0 deficit to beat Nebraska in a five-set thriller in front of an NCAA championship record crowd of 18,755 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Our analysts break down the final four and the state of the sport, and they take a brief look at the 2022 season.
What was the biggest key to Wisconsin winning it all?
Mechelle Voepel: The Badgers’ defense prevailed in both the semifinal and final victories. Coach Kelly Sheffield talked about how Wisconsin couldn’t have pulled out either match without reaching that high of a level defensively.
Missy Whittemore: This match was so incredibly close and could have absolutely gone either way. The defense on both sides of the net was the best I think I’ve ever seen in a match. Wisconsin’s block certainly positioned the Badgers to have an advantage, but it was the lead they jumped out to in the fifth set that did it. Nebraska’s rally to narrow that gap was one of the most impressive runs I’ve ever seen, but Wisconsin was able to hold on in the end.
Paul Sunderland: I picked a Wisconsin-Nebraska final, and the deciding moment may well have come in the second set. The Cornhuskers had four set points and could not close it out. They served two balls into the net, taking a lot of pressure off the Badgers. The match turned right there. I always thought that Wisconsin was the slightly better team, so the longer the match went, the better for them.
Jen Hoffman: The record-setting defense for Wisconsin in the championship match was too much for Nebraska to handle.
Wisconsin evens it up at one set apiece after Dana Rettke comes up with two big-time blocks at the net.
What was your highlight of the tournament?
Voepel: The second set of the championship match was such compelling volleyball; it was like everything was hanging in the balance. Nebraska was trying to grab what would have seemed like a nearly insurmountable 2-0 lead, with Wisconsin scratching and clawing to stay out of that huge hole. Dana Rettke getting the last three points of that 31-29 Badgers set victory was a case of the national player of the year coming through in the biggest match of her career.
Whittemore: The highlight for me was being asked to work the semifinals and finals. This was one of the most exciting championships I’ve witnessed in a long time. I really felt like the luckiest person in the world to be a part of those matches and to see all of the amazing athletes from Pittsburgh, Louisville, Nebraska and Wisconsin leave everything they had on the floor competing for a national title.
Salima Rockwell: In fitting fashion, the highlight of the tournament was the fantastic finale. As two of the country’s top programs battled on the national stage, we were all proud to call volleyball our sport. And while defense wins championships, Wisconsin proved that two lines of defense are even better than one: 24 team blocks and 31 Lauren Barnes digs.
Sunderland: Aside from the consistently highest level of play I have seen in many years, thanks in large part to so many super seniors, it was the record 18,755 spectators for the finals. How will the crowd in Omaha be next year?
Hoffman: The highlight of the tournament was honestly seeing Louisville’s success. Granted, Louisville is my alma mater, but even though the Cardinals didn’t finish off their undefeated season, Wisconsin definitely had to work for its championship.
Though the ACC didn’t have a team in the championship, what is the state of the conference?
Voepel: It has never been better. Louisville and Pitt are for real in the national championship contender category, and that will be the case as long as Dani Busboom Kelly and Dan Fisher are running those programs. They both have accomplished so much, so quickly. And the success of those two teams is going to continue to inspire the rest of the league.
Whittemore: The ACC is in fantastic shape now and for years to come. With six teams — Louisville, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida State and North Carolina — making the tournament this year, it has proved that they are not just good at the top but are turning into one of the strongest conferences in the country.
Rockwell: The ACC’s collective success is good not just for the conference but for the sport. The parity across the nation will only improve as recruits find it more and more difficult to decide where they want to attend college with so many legitimately threatening programs on the rise in the ACC and elsewhere.
Sunderland: The ACC proved it was the second-best conference in the country and is on a very solid path. Pitt, Louisville and Georgia Tech will lose a lot of talent, but Miami is on a strong path, as is Florida State.
Hoffman: The conference will only improve because of Louisville and Pittsburgh. The ACC can certainly continue to have teams contend for national championships with the right group of athletes and proper scheduling.
Wisconsin reaches its fourth national championship after a five-set thriller against No. 1 seeded Louisville.
How good was it to have the tournament resume its normal place in December?
Voepel: I loved it. The volleyball final four just feels like a natural part of the end-of-year holidays. We all have so many fond memories of this time of year with the great NCAA tournament matches and players we have seen. I was driving to the championship match and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” came on the radio, and I was thinking, “Yes! This feels so familiar.” For volleyball players, by the way, the “you” in that song is the national championship trophy.
Whittemore: To see the record-breaking crowd in the stands in Columbus this year was nothing short of amazing. I was so happy for them that they got to experience what it really feels like to be on the biggest stage in volleyball.
Rockwell: For the sake of those athletes who played in both the fall and spring, it was nice to see the season finish on time (knowing that many of these ladies are long overdue for a much-needed rest). Not to mention there is something magical about seeing the confetti fall in December with the holiday season just around the corner.
Hoffman: Although it coincided with college football bowl games, having the tournament return to the winter brought excitement and a sense of normalcy.
Which outgoing senior/super senior are you going to miss the most?
Voepel: Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke. She just comes across as a very bright young woman with an interesting personality and good sense of humor, and she is clearly a terrific teammate. She is so fun to watch play at the net. Hopefully, we’ll see her on the U.S. national team.
Whittemore: It’s so hard to choose because there are so many amazing players, but Lauren Barnes was so fun to watch over the years and exemplifies what it means to play with grit and heart.
Rockwell: All of the super seniors contributed to one of the most competitive seasons ever, but most of all, I am going to miss Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins. Her offense has become iconic over the past five seasons. And to be honest, as an announcer, I am also going to miss getting to say, “The Stivrins slide!”
Hoffman: It is remarkable to see up close Anna Stevenson elevate the way she does. Her amazing blocking talents are going to me missed at the college level.
What is your way-too-early 2022 prediction?
Voepel: With the final four in Omaha again and the fantastic freshmen we saw from Nebraska this season, look for that sixth NCAA title to come for the Huskers in 2022.
Whittemore: With so many super seniors moving on and exhausting their eligibility, I think the field once again will become wide open but for different reasons. My only prediction is that it will be another wild season of unpredictable results!
Rockwell: I predict the transfer portal is going to vastly change the outlook on next season, and there will be another first-time champion in 2022, as well.
Sunderland: Next year’s favorites have to include Texas, Nebraska and, yes, Wisconsin, even though the Badgers lose so much experienced talent. Look out for Stanford to be right there too. The wild card: Who exercises their extra year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and who uses the transfer portal?