Badgers Volleyball

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Alli Stumler had a premonition she and her Kentucky teammates would break through this year and reach the NCAA national semifinals for the first time in program history.

It hit her when she was in Pittsburgh to attend the 2019 championship match as a spectator.

“Got to see the game, the warmups, all the media time they got to do and I was talking about how awesome and how cool it was for such an opportunity,” she said. “I kept imagining our team, that next year this is our team.”

This tournament was moved from the fall to spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The field was reduced from 64 to 48 teams and it is being played entirely at the CHI Health Center.

The second-seeded Wildcats (22-1) will face No. 6 Washington (20-3) in the first semifinal Thursday night. No. 1 Wisconsin (18-0), which lost to Stanford in the national championship match in 2019, plays No. 4 Texas (26-1) in the second semifinal. The winners meet for the championship Saturday night.

Kentucky is in the NCAA tournament for the 16th straight time and lost in the regional semifinals in its last three appearances. It was Washington that eliminated the Wildcats in 2019.

“We have a lot of players dedicated to this game and we take our losses the last couple seasons to heart and take them seriously,” Stumler said. “Coming for revenge each year, for sure.”

Kentucky has beaten six straight opponents 3-0 since its only loss, a five-setter at Florida on March 27.

Washington, in the final four for the fifth time and first since 2013, has won all three of its tournament matches in five sets. The Huskies are the only team since the rally scoring era began in 2001 to win three straight that went the distance in the tournament.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best volleyball in this tournament yet,” setter Ella May Powell said. “Throughout the season we saw glimpses of what we can be.”

The Badgers are in their second straight national semifinal and fourth overall. Texas is in the final four for the 13th time in program history and ninth in 13 years, most in the nation during that span.

“How in the world Jerritt Elliott is not in the AVCA hall of fame floors me,” Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield said of the Texas coach. “That’s one of the great accomplishments in our sport.”

Wisconsin is led by 6-foot-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke, a national player of the year candidate who’s among six players ever to be named a first-team All-American four times.

The Badgers were pushed to five sets for the first time this season in their win over No. 8 Florida in the regional final. They will be playing Texas for the first time since beating the Longhorns early in the 2018 season.

Wisconsin will be Texas’ third straight opponent from the Big Ten. The Longhorns posted 3-1 wins over Penn State and Nebraska.

“Wisconsin is extremely disciplined, and they’ve got more firepower and they’re balanced like we are at every position,” Elliott said. “It’s a great conference, and we’re going to have to go through it to be able to win this title.”