NCAA volleyball growth is on full display in the 2022 top four

OMAHA, Neb. — Louisville women’s volleyball coach Dani Busboom Kelly pauses and thinks about it for a moment. Sixteen years ago? Has it really been that long?

Indeed, in December 2006, he was in the same arena in downtown Omaha as the Nebraska senior libero who won the national championship. Seven years ago, he came back here as an assistant coach for the Huskers doing the same thing.

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

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

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

San Diego takes on Texas, and Louisville meets Pitt starting at 7 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN App/ESPN) at the CHI Health Center, which is hosting the last four for the fourth time. Busboom Kelly, a Nebraska native who celebrated two titles here previously, reflected on Wednesday both on his travels and in the sport.

“I became a coach – I thought I should give it a try, otherwise I’ll always regret it,” he said. “But in my mind I knew once I got the coaching job I might never get out of it.

“Offered a job here [at Louisville in 2016]I know I have many weaknesses, but I know what it takes to run a great program.”

Louisville might have faced his alma mater Busboom Kelly in the regional finals, but Oregon beat Nebraska in the semifinals. Then, playing on their home court, the Cardinals rallied to win 3-2 over the Ducks. Thanks to Kelly’s Busboom roots, Louisville will be a favorite for Nebraska fans who will watch Thursday’s game without support from the Huskers. They can wear their trademark Husker red for the Cardinals.

“My first year at ACC, we didn’t have a team that was in the Top 25,” said Busboom Kelly. “We need to push ACC forward. And I’ve spoken to Dan Fisher a number of times. We need each other to be great, and we need the conference to continue to be great.”

Prior to Louisville and Pitt last season, only one ACC team had reached the volleyball finals of four: Florida State in 2011. Now, the league is guaranteed to have a team in the finals for the first time.

“I’m so happy we both made it back into the top four, because I think last year, there was a lot of noise, like, ‘Oh, this is just one time,'” Busboom Kelly said. “For both of us to do it again under completely different circumstances, with a completely different team, just speaks volumes about the growth of the sport.”

This is also a sign: For the first time, neither the Pac-12 nor the Big Ten have a team in the top four. Two Big Ten teams (Wisconsin and Ohio State) and two Pac-12 teams (Stanford and Oregon) fell in the Elite Eight. For the defending champion Badgers and Cardinals, the loss came at home.

Texas, still in the Top 12 until its eventual move to the SEC, has managed to remain a consistent powerhouse in volleyball, but it’s taken a lot of work. That includes working on the transfer portal. Transferring has always been a part of volleyball, but like all college sports now there’s a lot more to it. And they made an even bigger impact.

“How do we maintain this?” Elliott said of Texas’ success. “I don’t get much sleep, and I’m always worried about letting this thing fall apart. And it’s a relentless pursuit of every aspect of it all.”

While the Texas program is very familiar with the top four, and Louisville and Pitt make trips back from last year, this is the most magical season ever for the Toreros. Petrie is originally from San Diego but went cross country to play college volleyball at William and Mary in Virginia. He is now in his 24th year coaching San Diego, an NCAA tournament regular. But this is a step beyond what Toreros has done.

“Of course the pinnacle of my career is here,” said Petrie. “I never had a doubt in my mind that we have become a star program. Certainly it has gone beyond that, and we have broken the boundaries where we have been stuck for some time. This season raised the bar for many of the teams that will be chasing them.”

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