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                             First Downs and Second Guesses

                          Blog #190 - April 2021

The 2020 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship just concluded in Omaha last weekend, with Kentucky beating Texas, 3-1.  In the Final Four semi-finals, Texas  defeated top-seed Wisconsin, and two-seed Kentucky beat Washington to make it to the championship match.  This was Kentucky's first volleyball national championship.

The unique aspect of the 48-team tournament was that the entire tournament took place in a "bubble" environment.  All matches until the regional finals were held in the CHI Health Center convention halls.  Two courts were set up in each of the three cavernous exhibit halls with a black drape separating the two playing surfaces.  Only family members of players and staff from each school were allowed to watch the matches, which made attendance roughly a couple hundred people total.

The ball was still in play if it hit the ceiling, and there were several of those occurrences during the course of the early rounds.  Oddly, with the noise generated from each match, there was very little stoppage of play because of whistles screeching from each side of the drape.  Players just kept playing through every point, a tribute to their ability to focus on their side of the court and not be distracted by extraneous sounds.

Regional finals were moved to the convention center arena, with crowd capacity capped at around 4,500, although the finals did welcome 5,100 fans.  Nebraska made the regional finals for the ninth year in a row, an on-going NCAA record.  However, even with the majority of the pro-Husker crowd cheering them on, they weren't able to solve the athleticism of Texas, falling 3-1 in a closely-contested match.

In the finals, Texas dominated the first set.  But Kentucky clawed their way to wins in the next three sets to bring the first championship trophy back to Lexington.  Despite Nebraska not being in the finals, over 4,500 fans wearing Husker red showed up to watch the final match, a tribute to how Omaha responds when national championships are played in the city, even when the fan-favorite Huskers aren't competing.

Nebraska fans seemed to favor Kentucky since head coach Craig Skinner was an assistant coach under John Cook when the Huskers won the national championship in 2000.  Skinner also met his wife while coaching in Lincoln, wooing an assistant soccer coach to wedded bliss.  So the Nebraska connection with Kentucky's coaching staff seemed to dictate who Husker fans rooted for.

During the tournament, teams were not relegated solely to their hotel rooms.  Teams were allowed to walk around the downtown area, with many groups making their way to the world-famous Henry Doorly Zoo a couple miles down the road to the south.  Each player had their own hotel room, with one room on the floor designated as the team meal location and center of team-oriented activities.

I attended the championship match.  While talking with both Texas and Kentucky fans during the match, the vast majority stated that they enjoyed their stay in Omaha and that Omaha did a great job in dealing with the logistics of the tournament.  The NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship returns to Omaha again in 2022.

Coaches and players in all NCAA sports did a phenomenal job of circumventing COVID-19 in 2020-21.  Even though many teams experienced the pandemic and quarantining was rampant around the country, it's a tribute to each school's medical staffs that helped teams navigate the virus and their playing season.  

Hopefully, the country will reach herd immunity by the end of summer, and that fall sport seasons will progress without delay.  Make sure you're being vaccinated.  Make sure you continue to wear a mask around large groups and continue to adhere to CDC guidelines.  The fate of the nation, and college sports, depends on all of us to do the right thing.

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