MINNEAPOLIS — The match didn’t go Nebraska’s way on Saturday night, but the Huskers and Cardinal played a thriller of a five-set match to determine the 2018 national champion. The match featured some outstanding performances, a terrific atmosphere and a lot of emotion.
Here’s some notes, quotes, observations and stand-out stats from Stanford’s 3-2 win over Nebraska at the Target Center on Saturday.
>> Understandably, the overriding emotion in Nebraska’s locker room after the Huskers’ loss seemed to be sadness. Not sadness that they had lost, that they had failed to reach their goal, but instead a sadness over what the end of that match meant.
The team’s three seniors — Mikaela Foecke, Kenzie Maloney and Brooke Smith — had played their last match in a Nebraska uniform.
“It kind of sucks,” freshman setter Nicklin Hames said. “It’s really sad because we’re losing three great seniors and they really changed the program, so it’s hard. Losing them is the most painful part to think about.”
The nature of a the match — a five-set thriller — only served to intensify those emotions when it didn’t go Nebraska’s way.
"I can't really explain it to you,” senior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “I really just felt like we had the win and we didn't. Congrats to Stanford obviously, but it's just sad because I'm really going to miss this team and I wish we could've done it together.”
There were plenty of tears shed, but the Huskers had plenty to be proud of as well, something sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet expressed.
"Just a lot of pride,” Sweet said. “I'm really proud to be a Husker. You saw the atmosphere out there. There's no other fans like Nebraska fans, I was really proud to be part of that. But I'm just really proud of this team and these seniors and the legacy they'll leave behind. They're definitely leaving their numbers better than they came in.”
Maloney has said multiple times about how this is her favorite team she’s been a part of at Nebraska, and the outpouring of emotion after the game showed just how close the team was this season.
>> Stanford coach Kevin Hambly — who was very familiar with the Huskers after previously coaching at Illinois — had quite a bit of praise for Nebraska after the match.
“First, just congratulations to Nebraska on their season,” Humbly said. “I don't know that I've been part of a match that was, I don't know, more interesting, more hard-fought. The turnaround they had after set three, then the turnaround we had to make after set four, you just don't see that very often in matches. They played incredible. Foecke was unbelievable in that match. We couldn’t touch her. It's sad to see her leave the sport — not the sport, but leave the NCAA. She's going to have a long career ahead of her.
“I think we just all have a lot of respect for that team, how hard they play, the way they defend, the way they scrap. We knew we had to match that from the beginning. That was the difference in the sets we won; they won. Who defended, who passed. I'm really proud of our our young women for the turnaround after the fourth and staying together because it could have been easy for us to fracture and fall apart. All in all, I think we're elated and exhausted.”
>> The match included a few different career highs for the Huskers.
Foecke went out swinging with a career-high 71 swings (she had only cracked 50 attempts in a match 12 times in four seasons before Saturday with a high of 62) and 27 of them went for kills, also a career-high.
Offensive balance is normally a defining characteristic of the Nebraska offense, but with everything on the line, the Huskers went to their senior super star time and time again and time and time again she delivered.
Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins came up huge as well with a career-high 19 kills on .615 hitting.
A hitter can only be as good as her setter allows her to be, and Hames played a big role in Foecke and Stivrins going off the way they did. The freshman finished with a career- and match-high 62 assists as Nebraska hit .271 against a team that had allowed opponents to hit for an average of just .164 this season.
Sweet also tied her career high with five blocks. Cook had praised the sophomores improvement as a blocker all season.
>> Heading into the Final Four, Nebraska was 16th in the country in aces per set at 1.67. Stanford was 1.38, good for 101st in the country. However, the Cardinal dominated the serve game and that is a big part of why Stanford took home the trophy.
Both sides finished with eight service errors, but Stanford served up nine aces to just two for Nebraska. The Huskers had two service errors in the fourth set. Each time, the match was tied and the miscue prevented the Huskers from even giving themselves a chance to take the lead. Then, late in the set, Stanford served an ace that gave the Cardinal match point at 14-10.
>> For the second straight match, freshman outside hitter Capri Davis came up clutch with a big kill in the fifth set. She finished with five kills and just one error on eight swings off the Nebraska bench.
“I think it’s huge just to know that they have that trust,” Davis said. “Every single time I come in Foecke is underneath me just telling me ‘Hey, swing big; we’ve got you.’ I think that’s huge — I would not be able to do that if they didn’t just tell me how much they believe in me. I told her that after the game, ‘thanks you for believing in me because I couldn’t do it myself at the beginning of the season.’ So I would not be the player I am without having them behind my back.”
Davis had a roller coaster ride of a season. With Lexi Sun on the shelf while recovering from an offseason injury, Davis started early on but rotated at the second outside hitter spot with sophomore Sami Slaughter as both players struggled with consistency. When Sun joined the lineup, Davis found herself watching most of the matches from the bench. However, when Nebraska ran into problems with a certain rotation that had the lefty Sweet on the left side of the court instead of the right side where she’s more effective, Cook turned to Davis to sub in for Sweet in that rotation.
“Definitely a huge learning experience,” Davis said abut her first season of college volleyball. “I’m not the same freshman I was when I came in. I just had a lot of great people to look up to. It’s been a heck of a season just to be able to come this far my freshman year so it’s been a really good learning experience.”
>> The match at the Target Center was sold out with an announced attendance of 18,113. That is the third-largest single-season attendance in NCAA volleyball championship history (bumping Thursday’s crowd for the Huskers against Illinois down to fourth) and it is the second-largest for a championship match.
The largest crowd for a title match was last season’s in Kansas City where the Huskers beat Florida for their fifth national championship. The second-largest attendance for any postseason match was the semifinals in Kansas City which featured a five-set thriller between the Huskers and Penn State.
Total attendance for the two sessions at the Target Center was 35,921, second behind only the 36,863 that showed up in Kansas City last year.
What’s the common denominator? Huskers fans.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.