(WAVE) - You wouldn't think the state of Kentucky would play much of a role when Nebraska and Stanford meet in Saturday's NCAA volleyball championship in Minneapolis.
Those who’ve been paying attention, however, know that the starting liberos have helped their teams win the last three national championships, and are both products of the Commonwealth.
Nebraska is led by senior co-captain Kenzie Maloney, who helped the Huskers win last year’s national championship and started 30 matches for Nebraska’s 2015 national title team.
Maloney starred at Louisville’s powerhouse Assumption High School, winning three straight state championships and was a first-team all-state performer.
Stanford’s floor leader is Morgan Hentz, a junior All-American from northern Kentucky’s Notre Dame Academy, where she helped the Pandas win four straight regional titles and was named Miss Kentucky in 2015 as the state’s top player.
As a freshman, Hentz helped Stanford win the 2016 national championship, when she recorded 27 digs in both the national semifinal defeat of Minneapolis and the title clincher two days later over Texas.
Maloney helped key a Husker comeback in Thursday’s semifinal win over Big Ten rival Illinois. The Illini won the first two sets but Maloney and fellow senior co-captain Mikaela Foecke led a late rally to claim a five-set win. Late in the fourth set, Maloney’s diving dig set up the point to help the Huskers pull even and force the decisive fifth set against the No. 3-seed Illini.
“We all just dug down deep and genuinely believed we could do that, turn the match around,” Maloney said after Thursday’s win. “I don’t know, we just played with a lot of heart. It really came together for us in the third set.”
Added Nebraska coach John Cook: “I’ve been telling you guys in Lincoln all year, Foecke and Kenzie are great leaders. They willed that team, willed those kids to play.”
In the other semifinal, tournament top-seed Stanford breezed to a straight-set win over BYU, avenging its only loss this season more than 100 days ago. After a sluggish start, the Cardinal woke up midway through the first set and pulled away thanks to the hustle of Hentz and the all-around play of newly-crowned, two-time national Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer.
“We started to communicate with each other,” Hentz said afterward. “We said it over and over again, stay patient, stay in the rallies. I think we did a good job of that.”
Winners of 31 straight matches this year, Stanford’s seven national championships are more than any other team.
Stanford and Nebraska play at 9 p.m. ET Saturday. The game will be shown on ESPN2.