We will have a new NCAA volleyball champion in 2022. But who will it be?
Defending champion Wisconsin lost in the regional final to second-seeded Pitt in a five-set thriller Saturday, as the Panthers clinched a spot in the national semifinals for the second straight year.
The ACC has never had a team make the national championship game, but the conference is guaranteed to be represented this year, as Pitt will face No. 1 seed Louisville. They split their two meetings this season — Pitt won 3-2 on Oct. 23 and Louisville won 3-0 on Nov. 18. The stakes have never been higher for a rematch.
Meanwhile, San Diego outlasted No. 1 seed Stanford on the road in five sets in the regional final. The Toreros, who lost in the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament, advanced to their first final four by defeating the nine-time champion Cardinal, who won titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
The only team remaining that has national championship game experience is No. 1 seed Texas, which hasn’t won a title since 2012 and lost three championship matches in 2020 (to Kentucky), 2016 (to Stanford) and 2015 (to Nebraska).
In Louisville’s Dani Busboom Kelly and San Diego’s Jennifer Petrie, the final four will have two women head coaches for just the second time in NCAA tournament history. The first was in 1993, when Florida’s Mary Wise and then-BYU coach Elaine Michaelis both lost in the semifinals. Wise has coached twice in the NCAA final — in 2003 and 2017 — but no woman head coach has won the championship. So that history could be made this weekend.
The national semis begin Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), and the championship is Saturday night. We asked our volleyball experts to break down the field and preview the final four.
Between Wisconsin, Nebraska and Stanford, which team are you surprised didn’t make it back to the final four?
Holly McPeak: I thought Wisconsin had a really good shot this year. The Badgers had reloaded in key positions and were so dominant at the net defensively. Pitt was able to get them out of system and make scoring runs on them, and that was the difference.
Courtney Lyle: I really thought Wisconsin would continue its run to repeat as national champions. The Badgers lost a lot from last year’s team, but they reloaded with some valuable weapons, including transfer Sarah Franklin. The fact that Wisconsin, Nebraska and Stanford didn’t make the national semifinals speaks to how the level of competition is growing across all conferences.
Jennifer Hoffman: As the volleyball landscape continues to change, it is no surprise to see so many regional finals battle it out. The lackluster play throughout the tournament by Stanford and Nebraska’s early exit was not all that surprising considering how talented their opponents were. The real surprise regarding Wisconsin’s loss was how many errors the Badgers made in the tournament against a team like Pitt. All of Wisconsin’s regular-season losses were laced with errors, and the regional final against Pitt was no different.
Shelby Coppedge: Originally, I truly thought there was no way that Wisconsin didn’t make it past their regional. When I saw how Pitt played, though, the Panthers fully earned it. I’m not surprised Stanford didn’t make it; San Diego has demanded attention and respect every single week. The Toreros have been beating Power 5 schools since opening weekend (including Pitt).
M.A. Voepel: A good case could be made that San Diego could have been the top seed in its regional, so most were expecting that the Toreros had a chance of winning, even on Stanford’s home court. Still, San Diego actually pulling it out in five sets was really impressive. As for the Badgers’ loss, Wisconsin has had more than a few heartbreaks in the NCAA tournament — losing in the elite eight after going up 2-0 to a freshmen-led Stanford team in 2016 was a big one — and this one was painful, too. But Pitt’s final four experience last season probably helped the Panthers pull off that upset.
The two teams returning to the final four are Louisville and Pitt. How much has the ACC developed over the past couple of years?
McPeak: Both Louisville and Pitt have established themselves as top national programs, and their growth will help their conference as a whole continue to get stronger.
Lyle: Louisville and Pitt have really set the tone in the ACC. I think it’s only going to attract more high-profile players to the conference because the Panthers and Cards have shown sustained success.
Hoffman: The ACC has largely been dominated by Florida State, North Carolina and Duke, so the addition of Louisville and Pitt was a needed boost to the conference’s dominance. With both Pitt and Louisville making back-to-back appearances in the national semifinals, history will be made with an ACC team going to the national championship match. I think this is the year an ACC team takes home a national championship.
Coppedge: Pitt and Louisville have set the new standard for the ACC. The ACC is definitely coming for the Big Ten and will only get better after recruits see how these two teams have played in the postseason.
Voepel: You have to look at two really good coaching hirings for Pitt (Dan Fisher in 2013) and Louisville (Dani Busboom Kelly in 2016). Fisher won a national championship at the NAIA level as head coach before taking over at Pitt. Busboom Kelly won NCAA titles at Nebraska as a player and an assistant coach. Both have built their programs into powerhouses and changed the landscape nationally.
Is it the ACC’s year? Perhaps. Getting to the national semifinal is hard enough; winning the title is that next step in difficulty. But even if neither of those programs win the 2022 championship, they’ve established themselves as perennial competitors now.
Given San Diego lost in the first round last year, how impressed are you at this year’s final four run?
McPeak: I am so impressed with what coach Jennifer Petrie has done with this program. San Diego is consistently in the tournament, and she has a veteran squad with a talented puzzle piece in Gabby Blossom from the portal. Together, they are a special group that has been dominant all year and have proved they deserve a shot at the title. I can’t wait to watch what they do in a huge test against Texas.
Lyle: San Diego is an excellent example of how much parity there is in college volleyball and how the transfer portal can help a program take a giant leap forward in a short amount of time. This is a physical, smart and tough Torero team. They’ve fully bought into the “why not us?” motto, and that makes them dangerous. The match against Stanford should have other teams worried — San Diego was down big in a few of those sets and never got rattled. They’ve proven they can weather the storm. Now can they do it on the biggest stage in college volleyball?
Hoffman: San Diego should have been a No. 1 seed. Petrie and her squad cleared a big hurdle in making it out of the first two rounds, which resulted in them playing their best ball. After all, they were ranked No. 3 in the most recent national poll. With the big story this year being Texas and their standout senior Logan Eggleston, San Diego now has to play the top team in the nation on the biggest stage, so we’ll see if the lights are blinding or if the Toreros can keep proving doubters wrong.
Coppedge: I am extremely impressed. I was blessed to call San Diego opening weekend in its match against Texas A&M. The Toreros swept the Aggies and Hawai’i and beat Pitt in five sets that weekend. After that, I continued to follow SD, and every week, they would play lights out. It can absolutely be argued they deserved the top seed because of how consistently dominant they have been all season.
Voepel: It’s good to see decades of hard work pay off for Petrie and San Diego. In her 24th season with the Toreros, she is making her first final four trip, a hard-earned one at that. She and her team deserve a lot of credit for beating the sport’s most successful program on the road.
Petrie’s team has been a regular in the NCAA tournament, but all the pieces came together this season. Adding a fifth-year senior such as Blossom was capper. In her, the Toreros got a veteran setter who had been through plenty of pressure situations at Penn State, including two Elite Eights. She has been crucial to San Diego’s success this season.
Does Logan Eggleston have the supporting cast this year at Texas to win a title?
McPeak: With the addition of the talented combination of UCLA transfer Zoe Fleck, freshman Emma Halter and Nebraska transfer Keonilei Akana, the Longhorns have their best shot at the title this year.
Lyle: Logan Eggleston is just one of many pieces for Texas this year. It’s not all on her, and that plays to the favor of the Longhorns. I’ve really been impressed with the back row play from Texas’ littles: Zoe Fleck, Emma Halter and Keonilei Akana. That trio has a certain toughness to them with Fleck setting the tone. That kind of upgrade will help Texas against the heavy arms they’ll face in Omaha.
Hoffman: I think the national championship will come down to who’s the better team, not who has the better players. Texas has an all-star lineup that is all-in on winning a title, but this team has yet to face a defensive-minded team at the net. Louisville (331 total blocks), San Diego (311) and Pitt (296) all rank above Texas, which has just 229 on the season. All four of these teams are special and have fought their way to Omaha. Texas is the definite favorite with Madi Skinner and Asija O’Neal’s capacity to score, but defense wins championships, and I think that’s a difference-maker as these four teams battle it out in grand fashion.
Coppedge: Yes, Logan Eggleston has the pieces to win the title. Zoe Fleck, the all-star libero has been a huge asset. Madisen Skinner has the title-winning experience. Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres has brought a positive culture. Asjia O’Neal is the spark. Molly Phillips is the wall. The biggest thing in my head that I see stopping Texas is its style of play. Texas likes to play high ball; the Longhorns pass and set so high (because they can), it’s almost like watching in slow motion at times. They are down to tip over and over until they are forced to hit. Their style has worked for so long, but they aren’t as tested in their conference as other schools. It’s going to be interesting to see if their style works moving forward.
Voepel: Have to say that Texas has had all the pieces to win multiple times since their 2012 championship, and it just hasn’t happened. I actually think Texas overachieved in 2015 to make the final. In 2016, the Longhorns played great in the semifinals and not as well in the championship match. And 2020, it looked again like it would be their championship, but Kentucky rallied to win. The Longhorns keep putting themselves in position to win, and that consistency is important. But they really want this title.
What is your championship prediction?
Hoffman: San Diego edges out Texas after a lights-out, monster blocking night and will face Louisville in the final — and Louisville hoists the championship trophy.
Coppedge: Texas vs. Pitt. I truly don’t know who I think would win. I just don’t see Texas making it to the final again and losing.
Voepel: Louisville vs. Texas, and the Longhorns get their third championship. I’ve picked Texas to win it all a few times in the past decade, so maybe this one will be correct.