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Huskers Come Up Just Short in Quest for Repeat Title

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In which I wax poetic about Mikaela Foecke and the magic of college volleyball

Scott Bruhn | Nebraska Communications

In October, it didn’t seem like this was going to be the Huskers’ year. Sure, they’d surprised last year during a “rebuilding” year when they did no less than win their second National Championship in three years. But this year... well, it just didn’t seem to quite be gelling for the Husker women. Breaking in a new freshman setter in Nicklin Hames, superb as she was, was a tough task, and the Huskers seemed poised to be only fourth or fifth best in the conference, incredibly. They lost five of seven during the month as they passed through a meat grinder of a Big Ten schedule.

“It’s a young team,” Husker fans sighed. “They’ll be fine, they just won’t do much* this year.”

(* “much,” of course, is a relative term—even when Nebraska was “down” in October, there were probably only about ten teams in the country that could beat them. We are admittedly very spoiled here.)

Personally, I had them pegged as a team that would lose in the Elite Eight. That’s obviously no shameful achievement, but in October, I couldn’t see them mustering their way much farther than that.

But October didn’t last forever.

After an October 27th loss to Illinois in Lincoln which saw the Huskers hit only .099, something clicked. The Huskers didn’t lose again. Their next match was a thrilling five-set win over Penn State, and they pasted the rest of the Big Ten schedule, dropping only two sets in the entire month of November.

Then they got to the tournament, and they remembered what to do. Win.

The first two rounds were easy—the Huskers didn’t drop a set while taking out Hofstra, Missouri, SEC champion Kentucky, and slayer-of-Minnesota Oregon. They made it out of the Elite Eight, against my earlier prognostications and advanced to their fourth Final Four in four years, no small accomplishment. It made Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney the first Huskers to ever achieve such a feat, and at that point, gave them a 20-1 career post-season record.

The Huskers faced conference foe Illinois in the semi-finals, with whom they’d split matches during the regular season and who had handed the Huskers their final, pivotal loss back in October. And... they played like hot garbage. For two sets anyway. After winning a tight third set, the race was on, and the Huskers launched themselves into yet another championship match against Pac-12 heavyweight, #1 seed, and tourney favorite Stanford.

The Championship Match

The Huskers were decided underdogs coming into the match, although after the grit displayed in their Final Four victory, you’d have to have been a foolish person to dismiss them out of hand. The game we got was everything the volleyball fan could want in a National Championship match.

The first set was closely contested, though Stanford pulled away late, forcing Nebraska to fight off five set points by Stanford before succumbing 28-26. Undaunted, the Huskers nabbed the second, winning 25-22.

The third and fourth sets were once again back-and-forth victories, but were strange in that each team turned in an absolutely dominating performance. Stanford was up first, blowing the Huskers off the court 25-16 in the third. But Nebraska returned the favor in the fourth, dominating the Cardinal 25-15 to even the match and bring about a decisive fifth.

Set five was close throughout, tied as late as 9-9. But the turning point came with an ace serve from Stanford to make it 14-10. The replay of that serve was a drawn out affair, as the ball could not have been any closer to being out. In my view, it was probably correct that it was juuuuuuuuust in by as minuscule of a margin as is possible. But it was very unfortunate timing for the Huskers to have a play like that at that point in the game. The Huskers fought for two more points, but Stanford ended the match with a 15-12 victory, handing the surprising Huskers a heartbreaking 3-point loss and keeping them from a repeat of the National Championship.

However, there was much to be proud of and excited for:

  • Mikaela Foecke, one of the Huskers’ all-time greats playing in her final match, did everything in her power to keep the Huskers in it—at many points, you could almost see her willing her team to stay alive. Her fellow senior, one of the greatest if not the greatest liberos to ever come out of Nebraska, Kenzie Maloney, likewise left everything on the court. So dominant were these two and so distinguished their careers, I’m going to share some of their incredible stats courtesy of Huskers.com. Have a gander:

Nebraska’s two seniors who were with the program each of the last four years – Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney – finished with a 21-2 record in their NCAA Tournament careers. Foecke and Maloney played in more postseason sets and matches and won more NCAA Tournament matches than other players in Husker history.

Foecke and Maloney finished with a 52-3 combined record in the months of November and December.

Foecke had a career-high 27 kills in the match on a career-high 71 swings. The 27 kills tied for the second-highest total by a player in a five-set NCAA Final. Foecke also had 11 digs, posting her fourth straight double-double.

In her three career NCAA Finals, Foecke totaled 66 kills on .301 hitting. She had at least 19 kills in all three of her NCAA Finals matches.

Foecke has 129 kills in her career in NCAA Semifinals/Finals matches. That total ties for third in NCAA history.

Foecke served up nine aces in her career in NCAA Semifinals/Finals matches. That total ranks in a tie for eighth in NCAA history.

In her overall NCAA Tournament career, Foecke totaled 309 kills and 26 aces. Her 282 postseason kills and 25 aces both rank second in Nebraska postseason history.

Foecke finished her outstanding career with 1,684 career kills. Foecke ranks third all-time at Nebraska in kills, including second in the rally-scoring era (since 2001).

Foecke also totaled 135 service aces in her career, the seventh-most in Nebraska history and the fourth-highest total in the rally-scoring era.

Foecke finished her senior season with 514 kills, tied for the eighth-highest total in Nebraska history and third during the rally-scoring era. Foecke joined Sarah Pavan (2006) and Kelsey Robinson (2013) as the only Huskers to have 500 kills in a season during the rally-scoring era (since 2001).

Foecke also had 46 services aces in 2018, the fifth-highest total by a Husker in the rally-scoring era.

Maloney finished with 86 digs in her career in NCAA Semifinals/Finals matches. That total ranks in a tie for fourth in NCAA history and is the most in the rally-scoring era.

Maloney finished her career with 229 digs in the NCAA Tournament digs to rank third on Nebraska’s postseason career digs list.

Maloney had 84 digs in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the fourth-highest total in Husker postseason history.

Maloney finished her career with 1,406 digs. That total ranks fifth all-time at Nebraska.

Maloney had 536 digs in her senior season, the fourth-highest total in Nebraska history. Maloney averaged 4.03 digs per set – the eighth-highest total in school history – to become the fifth Husker to average 4.0 digs per set in a season.

That is just absolute beast-mode dominance that is hard to find in any sport. These young women are such phenomenal athletes, and it has been nothing but a joy to watch them over the past four years. All of Husker Nation is going to miss them, but are so glad that we were able to watch them flourish and dominate for so long.

Here’s Kenzie doing Kenzie things:

And Mikaela Foecke Time:

And while we’ll miss those two, there was plenty of encouragement for the future in the rest of the team. This is still a relatively young team, which makes their accomplishments this season all the more impressive—and it’ll be really exciting to see what they can do in the coming season. Consider:

  • Lauren Stivrins—WhiteSpeedReceiver refers to Stivrins as “Nebraska’s Targaryen” by virtue of her white-blonde hair and penchant for absolutely blistering her competition into oblivion. It is a thing of absolute beauty to watch her destroy a ball. Oh, and she hit .615 in the match with 19 kills on 26 swings. The only other player to hit above .600 in NCAA Final history was in 1986. She’s absolutely devastating. Oh, and happy news for the rest of you... she’s only a sophomore.
  • Nicklin Hames, a true freshman who had the difficult task of replacing First Team All-American setter Kelly Hunter, showed great promise in her first year at the helm of the offense. She had a career-high 62 assists against Stanford and ended the season with 1,392 assists, the third-highest total for a Nebraska setter. So, you know, it seems like she’s going to end up being ok. :)
  • Jazz Sweet, a sophomore outside hitter, had a tough season, but got her groove back in the final with ten kills.
  • While freshman Callie SwarzenBLOCK didn’t have her greatest night on Saturday, she still finished the season with 177 blocks, a record for a Husker freshman and an indication that she’s likely to be a pain in the B1G’s butt for years to come.
  • Sophomore transfer Lexi Sun also provided an abundance of highlights this season, and should be thrilling to watch in coming years.

Controversy!

Unfortunately, Stanford’s team made some choices that have overshadowed what was a great match and should have been a great moment for them, finally winning the National Championship after choking away their chance in dramatic fashion last season when they were also favorites. Soon after the match, the NCAA tweeted (and then deleted) a photo showing an understandably ecstatic Stanford player sprinting into the locker room with the National Championship trophy. However, that was the second thing you noticed, thanks to some... creative artwork on the white board also in the frame, depicting a toothy tree aiming a gun at an admittedly well-drawn Herbie Husker:

Proof that winning a game doesn’t necessarily make you a winner, I guess! Obviously, with gun violence endemic in the U.S., this was not in the best taste, and Stanford should be rightly ashamed (their AD has issued an apology).

But I have to also note that while they should be embarrassed by the poor judgment on display here, they also should be embarrassed that a team representing a school with the high scholastic standards of Stanford was not even able to formulate their slam into a complete sentence: “To Hell The Huskers”? What does that mean? Super embarrassing for them that a lowly Nebraska grad had to point out this out...

Anyway, congrats to Stanford. But be better, please. And remember that prepositions are your friends.

Conclusion

It was another wonderful year to be a Husker volleyball fan. It is amazing to follow such an talented and gritty team in such a phenomenal conference. I will repeat, once again, my urging that if you haven’t given Big Ten volleyball a try, you really should. These women are such incredible athletes, and it is absolutely amazing to see what they can do week in and week out. Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan, Purdue... these are all terrific teams. Your choices are many!

It feels weird to say, but at the conclusion of another season, I feel almost privileged to have been able to follow them all season. Their game is so good, their athleticism so unbelievable, that sometimes I almost can’t believe what I’m seeing. I am so proud to be a fan of the greatest team in college volleyball, trophy or no.

Go Big Red!