One word sums up the four Big 12 Conference teams that have reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship:
Regular-season champion Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri all had to overcome various obstacles in order to reach the second weekend of the 64-team event. Here's the break down for the Big 12's final four. And here's an overview of all four regionals.
Nebraska at Washington
The Huskers face the nationally 11th-ranked Huskies on Friday (and the schools' football teams will meet in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30). Nebraska, the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA bracket, has won 10 consecutive matches - all by sweeps.
The trip to Seattle and facing a team on its home court is challenging but Nebraska coach John Cook made sure his team was prepared for rigorous situations.
Last spring, Nebraska went to China for a foreign tour that combined rugged competition and challenging opponents. The Huskers had to deal with being on the other side of the world, with uncomfortable short beds, unfamiliar food and the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.
"I don't think any other team really experienced what we did in the offseason," sophomore setter Lauren Cook told the Lincoln Journal-Star.
"We were completely cut off from everybody except each other," senior libero Kayla Banwarth said, "... and the teams we played were amazing."
Nebraska made similar trips to China in 2000 and '06. Those teams won national championships. The biggest road victory in school history came two years ago at Washington in the NCAA Tournament when the Huskers lost the first two sets and won in the fifth set after trailing 9-3. That victory earned the Huskers a trip to the national semifinals.
"We were going to have to do this somewhere at a regional," Cook said of this weekend's road trip. "That seed was planted back in China, and I think this is as close a group as we've had."
Oklahoma at Penn State
The Sooners reached the third Sweet 16 trip in school history by winning twice in Norman. But the second-round victory over No. 22 Tulsa in McCasland Field House was anything but easy.
Oklahoma won the first two sets 25-13, 25-22. But in-state rival Tulsa, which came into the match with a 31-2 record, refused to fold. The Golden Hurricane won the next two sets before the Sooners took the deciding fifth set 15-9.
"At that time, emotions were running very high," Oklahoma junior setter Brianne Barker told the Norman Transcript. "Really we talked about staying calm, having faith in each other. We had a lot of confidence going into the fifth because we were 5-0 in fifth games."
"It was an incredible performance for both teams," OU coach Santiago Restrepo said. "We're extremely excited to go to the Sweet 16."
Barker recorded the first triple-double in OU history with a career-high 10 kills, 57 assists and 14 digs. The All-Big 12 First Team honoree's .625 hitting percentage was the best among OU's starters.
The Sooners face a huge challenge in their regional semifinal match. They'll face three-time defending national champion Penn State (28-5) on the Nittany Lions' home floor.
Illinois at Texas
The Longhorns have won 17 consecutive matches and have reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight season but it took the return of an injured player to spark Texas' second-round victory over UCLA last Saturday.
After each team split the first two sets, the Bruins jumped to a 5-0 lead in the crucial third set. Texas coach Jerritt Elliott decided to send setter Hannah Allison into the match. Allison suffered an ankle injury on Oct. 6 and had not played in nearly two months.
"Hannah hasn't had a lot of repetitions coming back," Elliott said. "Even in the warm-ups, her rhythm wasn't very good. She's shown me all year that's she's a gamer. I felt that we got flat and we needed a spark."
Allison helped Texas put together a 10-1 run that gave the Longhorns the edge in a set they eventually won 25-18. UT went on to win the fourth set to take the match.
For the second consecutive weekend, ninth-seeded Texas will be playing on its home court and the other three teams are all seeded. Top-seeded Florida almost succumbed to the upset trend that dominated the first weekend of the tournament but the Gators survived a five-set second-round match with Florida State. The Gators will face No. 16 seed Purdue.
No. 8 seed Illinois, the Longhorns' semifinal opponent, handed Texas its only defeat at Gregory Gym on Sept. 3 and Florida beat Texas in five sets on Sept. 11 in Gainesville, Fla.
Missouri vs. Duke
The Tigers, along with Oklahoma, will be in State College, Pa., for the Penn State Regional starting on Friday. Missouri was scheduled to have its season-ending banquet Sunday but the school was more than happy to have to reschedule the event (it's now scheduled for Jan. 23).
That calendar shuffle came about because of Missouri's memorable weekend in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It started Friday when the Tigers recorded the biggest upset in NCAA volleyball history. In an epic five-set match, Missouri knocked off fifth-seeded Northern Iowa on its home court.
There was little time to celebrate. The Tigers returned to their hotel at around midnight Saturday and their second-round match against Northwestern was scheduled for 4 p.m. later that day.
"I would describe it as a real character test, a real toughness test," Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow told the Columbia Missourian. "People get to a point where they are so tired, it's tempting to give up. Some people let themselves go under, and some people keep fighting," Kreklow said. "Our girls came out and kept fighting until the end."
The Tigers beat Northwestern easily in the first set but lost the second set 23-25. Missouri made sure there would not be another dramatic five-set match by winning the next two sets to advance to the second Sweet 16 in school history.
"This is really special to me," Kreklow said. "I have to honestly say at the beginning of the season ... I wasn't thinking Sweet 16. I'm thinking, 'OK, we need to make the tournament with this group, and if we work really hard and really focus on what we need to do, I think we've got a shot and we can do it.
"For this group to really pull it together and really commit themselves to get to this level, that's what really makes it special."