NCAA volleyball’s growth on full display at 2022 final four

OMAHA, Neb. – Louisville women’s volleyball coach Dani Busboom Kelly paused and thought about it for a second. Sixteen years ago? Has it really been that long?

In fact, in December 2006, she was at the same arena in downtown Omaha as the senior libero from Nebraska and won a national championship. She was back here seven years ago as the Huskers’ assistant coach and doing the same thing.

Now, if her Cardinals win two games here, she will be the first ACC team to win the NCAA women’s volleyball title and she will be the first female head coach to do so. But she’s not the only one here who could make history.

San Diego’s Jennifer Petrie has her bullfighters in the last four for the first time, and she could also be the first woman to win a head coaching title. Coach Dan Fisher’s Pitt Panthers team — back for the second straight season in the last four like Louisville — could also become the first ACC title roster.

And while Jerritt Elliott and Texas are the last four regulars — this is the Longhorns’ 14th appearance in the national semifinals — they could become the eighth program to win the NCAA title three or more times. Texas’ other two championships were in 1988 and 2012.

San Diego meets Texas, and Louisville meets Pitt Thursday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App) at the CHI Health Center, which is hosting the Final Four for the fourth time. Busboom Kelly, a Nebraska native who previously celebrated the two titles here, reflected on both her journey and that of the sport on Wednesday.

“I came into coaching — I figured I had to try it or I’d always regret it,” she said. “But in the back of my mind I knew once I got a coaching job I would probably never get out.

“I was offered the position here [at Louisville in 2016]I knew I had a lot of weaknesses, but I knew what it takes to lead a great program.”

Louisville might have faced Busboom Kelly’s alma mater in the regional finals, but Oregon upset Nebraska in the semifinals. Then the Cardinals played their home court and earned a 3-2 win over the Ducks. Thanks to Busboom Kelly’s roots, Louisville will be the favorite of the Nebraska fans who will be cheering at Thursday’s games without the Huskers. They can wear their trademark Husker Red for the Cardinals.

“In my first year in the ACC, we didn’t have any teams in the top 25,” said Busboom Kelly. “We had to move the ACC forward. And I’ve spoken to Dan Fisher a few times. We need each other to be great and we need the conference to keep being great.”

Before Louisville and Pitt last season, only one ACC team had made the volleyball Final Four: Florida State in 2011. Now the league is guaranteed to have a team in the Finals for the first time.

“I’m pretty excited that we both made it back to the last four because I think last year there was a lot of noise like, ‘Oh, that’s a one-time thing,'” said Busboom Kelly. “The fact that we’re both doing it again in completely different circumstances and with completely different teams just says a lot about the growth of the sport.”

Another sign of this is that for the first time ever, neither the Pac-12 nor the Big Ten have a team in the last four. Two Big Ten teams (Wisconsin and Ohio State) and two Pac-12 teams (Stanford and Oregon) fell into the Elite Eight. For the defending champion Badgers and the Cardinal, those losses were on their home courts.

Texas, which is still in the Big 12 until its eventual move to the SEC, has managed to remain a consistent powerhouse in volleyball, but it’s taken a lot of effort. This also includes the work on the transfer portal. Transfers have always been a part of volleyball, but like all collegiate sports, there are more of them. And they make even more impression.

“How do we keep this thing going?” Elliott said of Texas’ success. “I don’t sleep very much and I’m always worried that this thing might fall apart.

While the Texas program is so familiar with the last four, and with Louisville and Pitt making their return from last year, this has been the most magical season ever for the bullfighters. Petrie is from San Diego but went cross country to play volleyball in college with William and Mary in Virginia. She is now in her 24th year as coach of NCAA tournament regular San Diego. But that’s a step further than anything the toreros have done.

“It’s definitely the highlight of my career to be here,” said Petrie. “I never doubted that we were an outstanding program. This certainly surpassed that, and we blew the ceiling where we’ve been stuck for quite some time. This season raises the bar for many teams that will come after them.” NCAA volleyball’s growth on full display at 2022 final four

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