This is the way it has to be: Stanford and Penn State at the Final Four in the NCAA women's volleyball tournament.
The top-ranked Cardinal secured its spot in Oklahoma City on Thursday with a sweep of Florida, 25-17, 25-22, 25-21, Saturday in Ames, Iowa. The Nittany Lions got there with a four-set win over Big 10 rival Wisconsin.
"No one on our team has been there before, so it will be a new experience for us and it is something that we've always striven for this whole time," Stanford junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess said. "We've always wanted to win a national championship. Getting past the Elite 8 has been something that has been very hard for us, so we are so excited and super proud of our whole team."
Stanford (33-1) and Penn State (34-3), the only two teams to have appeared in all 34 NCAA tournaments, have played each other 16 times, with each school winning eight times.
The Nittany Lions have the upper hand in NCAA tournament history with a 4-2 mark, including a 3-1 record in national championship appearances. They are meeting in the national semifinal for the first time.
Penn State has ended Stanford's season in three of the past seven seasons, including last year's five-set victory in the regional final, in which the Cardinal held a 9-6 lead in the fifth set. Junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku called it the worst moment of her life.
The Cardinal's goal remains a national championship, but getting to play the Nittany Lions at this point in the season is exactly how Stanford drew it up in their collective minds.
"There's a lot of offense out there," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "It makes us a little bit different. We do have five hitters that as we've gone through the season, we weren't always at the level that we're at now. One of our goals is to work hard every week and to be the team that improves every week. All of our hitters are hitting in the right direction right now."
As has been the case all season, the Cardinal shared the load with senior Morgan Boukather and Burgess each recording 12 kills against the Gators. Ajanaku and fellow middle blocker Merete Lutz each added nine.
"We have, like, five offensive weapons and when we are all on I think we are a pretty tough team to stop," Burgess said. "I know I had a lot of seams. Madi did an excellent job so props to her."
Madi Bugg had 39 assists and Kyle Gilbert contributed 12 digs and three assists, the last one setting up Burgess to record the match point.
Stanford, which reached its first Final Four in six years and its 19th overall, never trailed in the third set but the Gators kept things interesting and tied the set at 21-21. Burgess recorded a kill out of the timeout and Bugg and Lutz blocked Florida to go up a pair.
The Gators called time but Stanford responded with a service ace to reach match point.
Stanford jumped to a 12-5 advantage in the first set and never allowed Florida closer than three points the rest of the set.
The Gators held an 8-6 edge in the second set when Stanford went on a 6-1 run to take charge.
No. 2 Texas and unseeded BYU play in the other national semifinal Thursday. The Longhorns (27-2) beat North Carolina in four sets over the weekend while the Cougars knocked off No. 14 Nebraska in three sets.
BYU (29-4) has advanced with wins over No. 6 Florida State, No. 11 Arizona and the Cornhuskers.