NCAA volleyball’s growth on full display at 2022 final four

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Omaha, Neb. — Louisville women’s volleyball coach Danny Busboom Kelly paused and thought about it for a second. Sixteen years ago? Has it really been that long?

In fact, in December 2006, he was in the same arena in downtown Omaha as the Nebraska senior libero winning a national championship. Seven years ago, he was back here doing the same job as an assistant coach for the Hussars.

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

San Diego’s Jennifer Petrie took her Toreros to the Final Four for the first time and could become the first woman to win a title as a head coach. Coach Dan Fisher’s Pitt Panthers team — back to the Final Four for the second straight season as Louisville — also could be the first ACC title contender.

And while Gerrit Elliott and Texas are 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. Texas’ other two championships were in 1988 and 2012.

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

“I got into coaching — I thought I had to try it, or I’d always regret it,” he said. “But in the back of my mind, I knew that once I got the coaching job, I probably wouldn’t get out of it.

“Offering a job here [at Louisville in 2016]I knew I had a lot of weaknesses, but I knew what it took to run a great program.”

Louisville may have faced Busboom Kelly’s alma mater in the regional finals, but Oregon upset Nebraska in the semifinals. Then, playing on their home court, the Cardinals won 3-2 against the Ducks. Thanks to Basboom Kelly’s roots, Louisville will be a Nebraska fan favorite who will be without the Huskers rooting for Thursday’s game. They can wear their trademark Husker red for the Cardinals.

“My first year in the ACC, we didn’t have a team in the top 25,” Busboom Kelly said. “We needed to get the ACC going. And I’ve talked to Dan Fisher a few times. We need each other to be great and we need the conference to continue to be great.”

Before Louisville and Pitt last season, only one ACC team had advanced to the Final Four in volleyball: Florida State in 2011. Now, the league is guaranteed to have a team in the finals for the first time.

“I’m pretty excited we’re both back in the Final Four, because I think last year, there was a lot of noise, like, ‘Oh, it’s a one-time thing,'” Busboom Kelly said. “For both of us to be back in completely different circumstances, with completely different teams, says a lot about the growth of the sport.”

It’s also a sign of that: It’s the first time a team from the Pac-12 or Big Ten isn’t in the Final Four. Two Big Ten teams (Wisconsin and Ohio State) and two Pac-12 teams (Stanford and Oregon) are in the Elite Eight. For the defending national champion Badgers and Cardinals, those losses were on their home courts.

Texas, so far in the Big 12 until its eventual move to the SEC, has managed to remain a consistent powerhouse in volleyball, but it’s taken a lot of effort. This includes working on transfer portals. Transfers have always been a part of volleyball, but now, like other college sports, there are more of them. And they are making more and more impact.

“How are we going to get this thing going?” Eliot talks about the success of Texas. “I don’t sleep much, and I’m always worried about taking this thing apart. And every aspect of it is relentless effort.”

Even though the Texas program is so familiar with the Final Four, and Louisville and Pitt are making their return trips from last year, this has been the most magical season for the Toreros. Petrie is from San Diego but went cross-country to play volleyball at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He is now in his 24th year coaching San Diego, a regular in the NCAA Tournament. But this is a step beyond what the Toreros have done.

“It’s definitely the pinnacle of my career to be here,” Petrie said. “There’s never been a doubt in my mind that we’ve been a great program. We’ve definitely outgrown it, and we’ve broken through the roof where we’ve been stuck for quite some time. A lot of teams that are going to come after them.”

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