Texas And Nebraska Are The Best Of Foes When It Comes To Dramatic Matches

— -- OMAHA, Neb. -- Their series started in 1981, and the first time they met for all the marbles was 20 years ago. They are volleyball programs that almost always tend to showcase the best players who grew up in their respective states. They used to be conference rivals, and even when that ended, they've continued to schedule each other.

They are Nebraska (Go Big Red!) and Texas (Hook 'em, Horns!) and they consistently represent college volleyball at its best -- with outstanding players, successful coaches, and passionate fan bases that know their history.

"Nebraska, I have to give their fans credit," Texas setter Chloe Collins said. "To sell out this arena -- 17,000 fans -- that's just unbelievable. And our fans are also so loyal. It's one of the reasons I love being at Texas so much. Having the support of our fellow student-athletes, our fan base, our administration is really awesome. And Nebraska does the exact same thing. That's what makes the rivalry so great between us."

No. 3 seed Texas and No. 4 Nebraska will play for the NCAA championship Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2) in front of a sold-out CenturyLink Center in Nebraska's largest city, Omaha, which has an estimated population of 445,600. About 1.3 million people live within a 50-mile radius of Omaha, an area that includes the state capital Lincoln, the home of the Huskers.

The Longhorns' home is Austin, the capital of Texas, with a population of around 912,00 in the city, and more than 1.9 million counting in the surrounding area.

Lincoln and Austin are not just state capitals, but were also the defacto "capitals" of the North and South when the Big 12 was split into divisions, from its inception in 1996 until the departure of Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12 in 2011.

During their time in the same league, Nebraska and Texas never much liked each other, and there will forever be Internet debates about which school was most responsible for the changes to the Big 12.

"I think more of that was from football," Huskers coach John Cook said of the animosity between Nebraska and Texas. "I think volleyball likes rivalries, but it's not as personal like football can be. We like to think that we have a rivalry with Penn State, with Texas, with Stanford, with Washington. We've played those teams a lot in the tournament and during the regular season. Those are the teams competing for national championships."

That said, there is something fitting about this particular matchup. When the schools met for the NCAA championship in 1995, Terry Pettit was Nebraska's coach, and Mick Haley was at Texas. The Huskers won 3-1 in Amherst, Mass., and it was the first NCAA volleyball final that didn't include a team from either California or Hawaii.

Cook took over the Nebraska program in 2000, when he won the NCAA title over his former program, Wisconsin. That year, Texas missed the NCAA tournament for the first time, and then-coach Jim Moore left. Jerritt Elliott became the Texas coach in 2001, and he had to do some rebuilding in his first few seasons.

"I took the program over when I was 32," said Elliott, a California native. "A big part of the whole process was how do I manage this group, how do I change the culture, how do I create something that's a winning mentality? Especially making sure the state is behind me."

Texas made the NCAA field his first two seasons, then missed in his third, in 2003. But every season except one since then, the Longhorns have made it at least as far as the NCAA round of 16. They are in as stretch now where they've made the final four seven of the past eight seasons, with the 2015 seniors being the first class to advance that far each year of their careers.

"We were recruiting the kind of kids that had great personalities that were great people," Elliott said of establishing what Texas has now, "and creating a culture around that."

Of course, volleyball culture is something that is very rich and deep in Nebraska, which has had 95 players from the state compete in this program. There are seven Nebraskans on this year's roster, including twins Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, who committed to the Huskers before they were high school freshmen.

Collins knows the Rolfzens well, as she played against them a lot in club volleyball going back to when they were all about 13 years old.

"I adore the twins; their family is amazing," said Collins, who is one of 11 Texans on the Longhorns' roster. "When they committed to Nebraska and I committed to Texas, we all said, 'Oh, I can't wait to play you in college. And for us to be doing that in the national championship match is really cool."

Nebraska leads the series 30-22, but Texas has won the last five meetings. That includes a five-setter in Austin on Sept. 4, but both teams have had changes since. Texas had Ebony Nwanebu, a transfer from Southern Cal, for that match, and she led the Longhorns with 22 kills.

But Elliott said the next day, she had trouble walking because of a leg injury, and she has had to redshirt the season. Yet the Longhorns -- who also didn't have prized recruit Micaya White this season because of injury -- have been able to adjust, win the Big 12 title again, and now are in the program's fifth NCAA final.

Key to that has been a great senior season by Amy Neal, the Big 12 player of the year who had career highs with 25 kills and 67 attacks in Texas' 3-1 semifinal victory over Minnesota on Thursday.

Neal has said that outside of Texas' Gregory Gym, her favorite place to play was at Nebraska because of the enthusiastic Big Red faithful. Saturday, it will be a lot like being at the Devanney Center in Lincoln, except twice as many fans.

"Honestly, I think it's kind of fun that it will be packed with Nebraska fans," Neal said. "It's fun when the crowd is against us. I don't think they will be causing us to have too much pressure. We'll just want to play; it gets us fired up."

Nebraska has been able to stay pretty healthy this season, but the Huskers have had some position changes since they faced Texas three months ago. Kadie Rolfzen and Mikaela Foecke switched position, with Rolfzen going to the right side and Foecke to outside hitter. Amber Rolfzen had changed from a hitter to middle blocker before the season started.

The various moves and Nwanebu's absence -- plus the evolution that naturally comes as a season wears on -- mean that the teams are somewhat different than when they faced off in Austin in September. But it's largely the same cast of characters, and two strategically sharp coaches who've maintained their series even though they are now in different leagues.

"It's one of the great rivalries in college volleyball," Elliott said. "They are one of the programs in the country that do it right and have invested a lot of money into it and grown their fan base. I think both cities enjoy the competition when they come into town; here are sellouts, and it makes it great for our sport.

"That's why you come to college, to play fun games and enjoy those opportunities and to challenge each other. For us to be able to play Nebraska early in the season every year, teaches us a lot."

And for the Longhorns and Huskers to play each other to end the season is kind of treat for everyone who enjoys the sport.