MINNEAPOLIS — The reasons have been well-documented as to why maybe the Nebraska volleyball team shouldn’t be here, back in the national championship match with a chance to win a third national title in four years.
Those reasons usually came up when Nebraska coach John Cook had to explain a loss, and that happened six times this season. That’s not many, especially playing in the Big Ten Conference, but more than Nebraska has had in four years.
Among the reasons why Nebraska wasn’t playing as well as the 2017 title team, or was at least a work in progress, included:
* There were eight new players on the roster, and just seven returnees.
* Nebraska’s offense would be in the hands of a freshman setter, Nicklin Hames, who followed in the footsteps of legendary winner and leader Kelly Hunter.
* For the second time in two years, Cook was breaking in a new assistant coach, Jaylen Reyes.
But we also must remember there was plenty to work with here, and it starts with these two: Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney.
Foecke was a second-team All-American outside hitter in 2017. If you have Foecke on your team, you usually have a chance. That was evident again on Thursday when Nebraska rallied from a 0-2 deficit to beat Illinois in five sets.
Foecke had 19 kills. She had just four hitting errors over 50 attempts for a .300 hitting percentage. She didn’t have any kills in the fourth set. But then in the fifth set, she went 4-for-4, including the match winner.
Maloney had 20 digs, 10 assists and one very big ace serve on the second-to-last point of the match. She’ll end her career as a third-team All-American.
When you start with players and people like that, you have a chance to do what Nebraska has done.
“Mikaela and Kenzie. That's why we shouldn't be surprised,” Cook said on Friday. “It's hard to bet against those guys, if it was legal in the NCAA. Of course, it's not legal in the NCAA. But if it was, it would be hard to bet against those guys. Like I said, that's what I've been saying. I don't really know how to explain it. That's the common denominator, is those guys.”
With Foecke and Maloney on the team, Nebraska has a 21-1 record in the NCAA Tournament in four years.
In the offseason, Nebraska also added Lexi Sun, a transfer from Texas and former top national recruit, at the outside hitter position where Nebraska had an opening. She had 19 kills on Thursday, including six crucial ones in the fourth set, when Foecke had none.
Sun didn’t play the first three weeks of the season due to an injury. Her season has at times been like Thursday’s match, where she makes some plays that make you say, "Oh, no," and then some plays that make you say, "Oh, wow." But usually when she’s having a great match, so is Nebraska.
“She bails out a lot out-of-system-type plays,” said Cook of Sun. “Last night we were out of system a lot. It takes a load off Mikaela.”
Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins is a sophomore but in her third year in the program. On Thursday, she had eight kills, and no errors in a pressure-packed match, to hit .500. In five NCAA matches this year, she’s hitting .471. She earned first-team All-American honors.
Nebraska had to play freshmen from the start. Long term, Cook probably views middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach and Hames as projects. But Schwarzenbach was the No. 2-ranked blocker in the Big Ten, and Hames has had the offense operating at a high level over the last month.
And Nebraska, at times, is getting numerous secondary contributions. Jazz Sweet had nine kills and hit. 350 on Thursday, freshman Megan Miller had 19 digs and a couple of long serving runs, Capri Davis had four kills and got a side out in the fifth set that may have saved the match.
In Cook’s locker room speeches, you’ll sometimes here more praise for a part-time player than Foecke or Stivrins.
“They feel like maybe it's one kill, one dig, one ace, but that could be the difference in a match,” Cook said. “Last night, if you look at total points, it was a two-point difference. That's the way it is this time of year. Every point really matters.”
Just like last year, this isn’t one of Nebraska’s most talented teams. It’s looking like neither of the two senior starters will play professionally. Foecke may go to veterinary school. Maloney is considering studying to be a sports psychologist.
Now, Nebraska faces a major challenge against top-ranked Stanford in the title match. But remember, twice in the last four years Nebraska has beaten the No. 1-ranked team in the NCAA Tournament (Penn State, 2017; Washington, 2015).
This team has faced challenges before, as recently as Thursday. They formed a tight bond during a rare three-match losing streak in October, got better and got back to the championship match.
“These guys didn't even flinch,” Cook said. “It's pretty rewarding. I think that's what you want as a coach. You want to see your team get better, go through the process and peak at the end."