Stanford makes amends, takes charge in NCAA volleyball championship rematch with Nebraska

In a rematch of last year's NCAA volleyball championship game, No. 1 Nebraska fell short, losing to No. 2 Stanford in four sets. Nebraska Athletic Communications

LINCOLN, Neb. -- It was the hottest ticket in the state of Nebraska, more anticipated than the "Hamilton" show playing 60 miles east, and hours before the top-ranked Cornhusker volleyball team faced No. 2 Stanford on Wednesday night, the asking price for courtside seats soared as high as $300.

Nebraska coach John Cook soaked in the atmosphere as he made his way across campus Wednesday afternoon to the Devaney Center, passing by a line that snaked a block or two to the front door. He took a picture and tweeted it out.

"90 mins pre match baby!" Cook typed.

For about an hour, the rematch of last year's electrifying national championship lived up to its hype. Then, a far more seasoned Cardinal team overwhelmed the Huskers 25-21, 22-25, 25-17, 25-16 before a sellout crowd of 8,632.

The contest was rife with storylines, most notably a burgeoning rivalry between two programs that have combined to win the past four national championships.

But the other subplot involved a locker room drawing on a whiteboard from last December's title match.

It appeared to depict the Cardinal's tree mascot aiming a gun at Herbie Husker and giving the Nebraska mascot the middle finger. Stanford coach Kevin Hambly's team wrote an apology email, and each player signed the Google Doc.

Cook, for his part, shrugged the incident off as "a non-issue." But apparently some fans weren't as forgiving. In an interview with espnW this past spring, Hambly said several of his players were threatened via direct messages on social media.

That's one of the reasons why the Cardinal did not want to publicize their community service visit to a grade school in Lincoln on Tuesday. They went to Hartley Elementary and taught volleyball skills and signed autographs.

A spokesperson from the Lincoln Public Schools said it was "honored" that Stanford chose Hartley for its community outreach.

Hambly's defending champion team had bigger things to worry about, like rebounding from an upset loss to Minnesota over the weekend that dropped the Cardinal from the No. 1 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.

The Cardinal actually landed in the state that promotes the slogan "Nebraska Nice" early Sunday, four days before the match.

They worked out at Nebraska's facilities, and the quiet stay appeared to work wonders. They hit .294, held Nebraska to .150 and were relentless in the final two sets, ripping off an 11-2 run in the fourth to force a swath of the crowd to the exits.

"We played a lot better in just about every way," Hambly said.

Besides returning seven of their top eight players from last year's team, the Cardinal have also played a tougher schedule in the first month, beating No. 7 Florida, No. 3 Texas and 10th-ranked Penn State. The loss to No. 8 Minnesota this past weekend snapped a 37-match winning streak.

"(Stanford's) challenge is going to be, how do they stay hungry and keep playing at this level?" said Cook, who starts two freshmen and has no seniors on his Nebraska roster. "Our challenge is, how are we gonna grow from this and get better over the next 2½ months? That's what last year's team did.

"That's the beautiful thing about volleyball here. People are in love with this program in the state of Nebraska." Nebraska coach John Cook

"We got there with four freshmen last year. I trust our training and how we do things, and I think we've got some pretty tough kids."

Kathryn Plummer gave the Huskers a few lessons. The two-time national player of the year hammered 19 kills and had four blocks and four aces.

Freshman Madi Kubik led the Huskers with 14 kills. A year ago, she and teammate Kenzie Knuckles were in the crowd for the national championship match, "freaking out up in the stands," Kubik said.

Though it didn't have quite the drama of last year, both teams walked off the court Wednesday night knowing they'd just experienced something special.

"Can I say one thing?" Hambly said as he wrapped up his news conference. "The crowd was amazing. You guys are great. Thanks for being such a good host for us. We appreciate it."

Cook stood in the hallway late Wednesday, thinking about the local fat cats who sat courtside and the crazies who lined the rafters for $10 standing-room-only seats.

"That's the beautiful thing about volleyball here. People are in love with this program in the state of Nebraska," he said.

"We call it a state treasure here."