Penn State-Nebraska: Through The Years Of College Volleyball’s Best Rivalry
Powerhouses Penn State and Nebraska will once again meet with a piece of NCAA Volleyball history on the line in the Final Four. It’s been described as two “freight trains” barreling through for another banner to add to the rafters, but however unlikely it looks watching the teams compete, one has to falter. It’s seemingly always been that way.
Dating back to 1981, the two schools have met 30 times leading up to Thursday night’s clash. Nebraska leads the series 20-10, with six-straight wins coming against the Nittany Lions. The Cornhuskers own a 7-3 edge in NCAA Tournament meetings, but Penn State has taken the only two matchups in the Final Four.
The 2017 Final Four meeting will be yet another chapter in the schools’ remarkable history — ruled by streaks, characterized by drama, and leaving a lasting mark on the sport. Here are a few of the memorable matches through the years:
1994 Regional Final — Penn State 3, Nebraska 1
Aside from winning the opening meeting between the two programs, the Nittany Lions didn’t have an answer for Nebraska throughout the 80s and early 90s — dropping six consecutive, including four NCAA Tournament matches.
After reaching the 1993 Final Four, Penn State achieved another milestone and finally got over the hump against Nebraska to make it to the national semifinals in back-to-back years.
1998 Final Four — Penn State 3, Nebraska 1
Penn State reached the Final Four for the fourth time in six years. Despite the postseason history between the two schools by this point — 10 Final Fours between the two teams — this would be their first meeting in the national semifinals.
Penn State took the first two sets and would conquer the Cornhuskers in four thanks to Lauren Cacciamani and Christy Cochran, who tallied 20 and 19 kills, respectively. The Nittany Lions’ undefeated run ended that year in the championship against Long Beach State, but Russ Rose would get his first of seven titles a year later.
2008 Final Four — Penn State 3, Nebraska 2
Sandwiched in the middle of Penn State’s NCAA volleyball-record 109-match winning streak was possibly the most unforgettable match in this rivalry. Nebraska had swept the Nittany Lions in their last meeting a year before — coming as the second-to-last defeat prior to the start of that record run, which lasted 2007-10.
Led by AVCA National Player of the Year Nicole Fawcett along with three first team All-Americans who would go on to become Olympians — Megan Hodge, Alisha Glass, and Christa Harmotto — the Nittany Lions jumped out to a 2-0 advantage thanks to convincing wins in the first two sets.
The Cornhuskers came storming back behind a sell-out crowd in Omaha to hammer the Nittany Lions 25-15 in the third set — Penn State’s first loss in a set all season. Nebraska continued the momentum, with two-time first team All-American and eventual Olympic medalist Jordan Larson leading the way, forcing this match to a fifth and deciding set.
Trailing 10-8 in the final set, Penn State called timeout and regrouped with a vengeance — taking seven of the final eight points to advance to the national title game.
2015 Regular Season — Nebraska 3, Penn State 2
The Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, bringing consistency to a rivalry that saw just a handful of matches through the 2000s. Heading into their first Big Ten meeting in 2015, the the Nittany Lions led 4-3 in conference play through four seasons against Nebraska. This particular match is where the Cornhuskers grabbed a hold of the series.
Penn State was undefeated, having dropped just two sets in 13 matches that consisted of a number of ranked opponents. The two-time defending national champion Nittany Lions stormed to a two-set lead, but two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Justine Wong-Orantes helped lead a charge that brought Nebraska back into the match and eventually take it in five sets.
The wheels fell off for Penn State that night against the Cornhuskers and the Nittany Lions never quite looked the same as they dropped five more matches on the year on the way to a Sweet 16 exit against Hawaii. Meanwhile the Cornhuskers earned their most recent of four NCAA Championships.
2016 Sweet 16 — Nebraska 3, Penn State 2
If its loss in Rec Hall the year prior had signified Penn State’s off-the-rails moment, the NCAA Tournament meeting in 2016 between the two schools might’ve been the matchup that brought the Nittany Lions back on track. In between these two games, Nebraska took down Penn State three times, including two sweeps. During the 2016 slate, the Nittany Lions posted their worst record in more than 30 years.
Yet Penn State was still seeded, competing for a spot in the regional finals, and somehow playing a match point against No. 1 Nebraska. Having battled through two tough sets, the Nittany Lions held a 2-0 lead and had a 24-22 advantage in the third set. Nebraska sided out to save off the first match point, giving Penn State the service return with a chance to win.
The ball made its way over to the lethal Simone Lee, but the Penn State star knocked her potential match-winner into the Nebraska block. The Cornhuskers rallied behind their sell-out crowd in Lincoln to win the next two points, and then cruised in the next two sets to knock out the Nittany Lions.
Nebraska won the only meeting between the two in 2017 — a convincing sweep in Rec Hall. But that’s the Nittany Lions’ only loss this season, having stormed through the rest of Big Ten play and the first four matches of the NCAA Tournament to earn this rematch. Whatever the result, Thursday’s battle will take a piece of this rivalry’s incredible history.