OMAHA, Neb. — Louisville women’s volleyball coach Dani Busboom Kelly paused and thought about it for a second. Sixteen years ago? It’s really been that long?
Indeed, in December 2006, she was in this same arena in downtown Omaha as a Nebraska senior libero winning a national championship. Seven years ago, she was back here as a Huskers assistant coach doing the same thing.
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 be the first woman head coach to do so. But she’s not the only one here who could make history.
San Diego’s Jennifer Petrie has her Toreros at the final four for the first time, and she could also be the first woman to win a title as head coach. Coach Dan Fisher’s Pitt Panthers team — back in the final four for a second season in a row like Louisville — also could be the first ACC titlelist.
And while Jerritt 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 starting at 7 pm 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 celebrated the two titles here previously, reflected Wednesday on both her journey and that of the sport.
“I got into coaching — I thought I had to give it a try, otherwise I’d always regret it,” she said. “But in the back of my mind, I knew once I got a coaching job, I’d probably never get out of it.
“Being offered the 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 might have faced Busboom Kelly’s alma mater in the regional final, but Oregon upset Nebraska in the semifinals. Then, playing on their home court, the Cardinals rallied for a 3–2 win over the Ducks. Thanks to Busboom Kelly’s roots, Louisville will be the favorite of Nebraska fans who will be at Thursday’s matches without the Huskers to root for. They can wear their trademark Husker red for the Cardinals.
“My first year in the ACC, we didn’t have any teams ranked in the Top 25,” Busboom Kelly said. “We need to push the ACC forward. 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 made the volleyball final four: Florida State in 2011. Now, the league is guaranteed to have a team in the final for the first time.
“I’m pretty excited we both made it back to the final four, because I think last year, there was a lot of noise, like, ‘Oh, this is a one-time thing,'” Busboom Kelly said. “For us to both do it again under completely different circumstances, with completely different teams, just says a lot about the growth of the sport.”
This is a sign of that, too: For the first time ever, neither the Pac-12 nor Big Ten have a team in the final 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 national champion Badgers and the Cardinal, those losses were on their home courts.
Texas, still in the Big 12 until its eventual move to the SEC, has managed to remain a consistent powerhouse in volleyball, but it has taken a lot of effort. That includes working the transfer portal. Transfers have always been a part of volleyball, but like with all other college sports now, there are even more of them. And they’re making even more impact.
“How do we keep this thing going?” Elliott said of Texas’ success. “I don’t sleep very much, and I’m always concerned about letting this thing fall apart. And it’s relentless effort of every aspect of it all.”
While 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 ever for the Toreros. Petrie is from San Diego but went cross-country to play volleyball in college at William and Mary in Virginia. She is now in her 24th year coaching San Diego, which is a regular in the NCAA tournament. But this is a step beyond anything the Toreros have done.
“It’s certainly the pinnacle of my career to be here,” Petrie said. “I’ve never had doubts in my mind that we have been a stellar program. Certainly this has exceeded that, and we’ve busted the ceiling on where we’ve been stuck for quite some time. This season is raising the bar for a lot of teams that are going to come after them.”