By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Kadie Rolfzen maintained a smile throughout the post-match questions as she sat on a stage, in front of reporters and cameras.
Her Nebraska volleyball career had ended with a disappointing 25-18, 25-23, 25-21 loss to Texas in Thursday night’s semifinal of the NCAA Final Four at Nationwide Arena.
Yet Rolfzen, one of four Husker seniors, seemed destined to conquer the emotions of playing in her final collegiate match, intent on maintaining poise.
Her teammate since high school, junior setter Kelly Hunter, sat next to Rolfzen. Hunter already had red eyes, seemingly having rid herself of all tears in the locker room and before this news conference.
Rolfzen held strong -- until a reporter asked if she was happy the way her career turned out, what with a national championship last season and a magnificent three-year run alongside longtime teammate Hunter.
Rolfzen continued to smile as Hunter first offered some words, and then she began to answer, talking about growing up in Nebraska and watching Jordan Larson, her idol, play volleyball.
“Dang it,” Rolfzen muttered as the tears finally began to flow.
She couldn’t quite hold back, after all, but who could really blame her?
“I’ve always wanted to come here, and these last four years are the best years of my life,” Rolfzen said. “And I wanted to win a Big Ten championship. We got to do that. I wanted to win a national championship. We got to do that.
“I wouldn't regret anything from these past four years. I think I’ve grown more as a person than I have as a volleyball player. And to be able to be with Kelly since eighth grade. We knew each other in and out. And so it was a pretty special four years. And, yeah, it sucks that this is how we lost tonight, but this one game doesn’t define our career.”
Yet, for a while, anyway, this season-ending loss to Texas will sting if only because it ended Nebraska’s season one match sooner than it needed to. The Huskers won’t have a chance for consecutive national titles for a first time in school history.
But, oh, the memories.
Nebraska coach John Cook said he has no regrets on how he handled the high expectations of this group as it won a Big Ten Conference championship and challenged for a national championship with an enormous target on its back.
“I don’t know what we would have done different,” Cook said. “They’ve done a heck of a job, and the senior class is really special. I told them we're going to be talking about them a long time of all the good stuff they've done, the good work they've done, how they prepared and gone about it. I'm just really, really proud of this team.”
He described an “incredible body of work” this team has accomplished over the last two seasons. Perhaps the grind of a grueling Big Ten schedule finally took its toll, Cook surmised. He noticed Minnesota, which lost to Stanford in four sets in the other national semifinal, also didn’t look like itself.
“They looked to me tired and a little bit flat. And tonight I didn’t think we were that flat or tired, but we just were frantic a little bit,” Cook said.
“And I don’t think it was Texas’s physicality that did that to us. I just think we were pressing. We were just trying too hard. We wanted it too much and it caused us to like do uncharacteristic things. We just tried too hard, and I feel like that’s what we were doing.”
Cook tried to get his team to calm down, like it finally did in rallying from a two-set deficit in the regional semifinals against Penn State. He thought maybe his team had settled a bit after burning off some of the initial adrenaline.
But it really never did find any rhythm or relax.
“We were just all over the place. And, again, Texas never let up,” Cook said, “So they kept it on us.”
Nebraska’s errors, like a slide set that simply fell to the court in game three, were “very uncharacteristic” for this team, Cook said. It didn’t help that Texas, which lost to Nebraska in last year’s national championship match, and again in three sets early this season, was loose and playing well.
“We were having a hard time stopping them,” Cook said. “I mean, I think, we’re the best defensive team in the country. And we let them hit .321 tonight. So when we couldn’t stop them, we started pressing a little bit, trying harder, and that’s why you saw those types of plays. I saw stuff I haven’t seen all year tonight.”
So yes, as Rolfzen said, it “sucks” this is the way Nebraska bowed out of the NCAA Tournament.
“We won the Big Ten, arguably the toughest conference in volleyball,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “So I just think today we were a little flat. But at the same time we did have a spectacular year, especially for the seniors. I wouldn’t regret anything this year.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.