The dust has settled a little bit since Nebraska’s heartbreaking five-set loss to No. 1 Stanford in the National Championship and the volleyball offseason has truly began.
The Huskers finished the 2018 season 29-7, and though Nebraska didn’t win the Big Ten title it outlasted all of its conference mates and took one-loss Stanford down to the wire.
This week, Hail Varsity is looking back and looking ahead with a position-by-position breakdown of the 2018 Huskers and the reinforcements on the way. Let’s start with the outside hitters.
Senior OH Mikaela Foecke
What more can I say about Mikaela Foecke? She’s one of the best to ever do it at Nebraska and just wrapped up an incredibly decorated career.
Foecke led the Huskers with a career-high 3.68 kills per set while hitting .317, the best of her career despite seeing more and more responsibility each year. Foecke was sixth in the Big Ten in kills per set but hit for a higher percentage than all of the players above her on that list. In fact, she was 13th in the conference in hitting and all 12 players above her were middle blockers.
Nebraska’s tendency to spread the ball around and keep the offense balanced prevented Foecke from putting up the gaudy kills numbers of some of the other top hitters in the conference and around the country, but she was every bit as deadly as anyone in the sport.
Foecke added 2.65 digs per set and recorded 17 of her 26 career double-doubles as a senior, growing into one of Nebraska’s best passers after staring her career as a front row player. She served up 46 aces, the most of her career.
Foecke was named a first-team All-American, an All-Big Ten performer and the volleyball winner for the Senior CLASS Award. For more about Foecke’s incredible career and the legacy she has left in Lincoln, go here.
In short, Foecke had an incredible season to cap a legendary career and she is leaving huge shoes to fill moving forward.
Oh, and congratulations to Mikaela and her fiancé on their engagement. She’s adding a third ring to her collection.
Sophomore OH Lexi Sun
The transfer from Texas was one of the many newcomers to the program in 2018, and her first season in Lincoln was a bit of a roller coaster ride.
The former No. 1 overall high school recruit who spent her freshman season as a Longhorn chose to transfer to Nebraska in the hopes of improving as a six-rotation player. An offseason injury cost her most of the preseason and nonconference and slowed her development, but once she was cleared Sun stepped right into the starting lineup at the L2 spot (the second left side hitter position behind Foecke) and played all the way around.
For the season, Sun averaged 3.11 kills and 2.69 digs per set with 30 aces, but she only hit .195 thanks to a second-half slump where Suns struggled to avoid errors. Sun hit .350 or better in six of her first nine matches but then followed that up with six straight sub-.200 performances including three below .100. Those struggles came during the team’s losing streak to top-10 teams.
Sun picked it up to close out the season and was strong in the team’s first two NCAA Tournament matches, but over the last four she averaged 3.06 kills per set on .170 hitting including a seven-kill, six-error performance in the championship game.
She had 13 double-doubles in her first season as a six-rotation player and has the athleticism to get to a lot of balls, but she certainly needs some polish with a few too many passing or serve-receive errors.
Sun is the most talented hitter in the program with Foecke’s departure and will get the first crack at locking down the L1 position, but she has a lot of work to do polishing up her skills. Hopefully for the Huskers a fully healthy offseason will allow her to do just that.
Sophomore RS Jazz Sweet
Sun wasn’t the only hitter that struggled at times for the Huskers this season. Jazz Sweet also took a step back from where she was as a freshman, at least from an attacking standpoint.
The lefty averaged 2.24 kills per set (compared to 2.22 as a freshman) but only hit .205 (after .273 last year). She bounced between successes and struggles all year with 17 matches hitting above .270 and 14 of .150 hitting or below.
Last season, Sweet occasionally split time with Anezka Szabo, the other southpaw on the team, but this year Szabo moved to middle blocker and then suffered a high ankle sprain that kept her out of the second half of the season, so John Cook rode with Sweet all year. All except for one rotation, however. More on that below.
One area that Sweet made significant strides in, on the other hand, is in the blocking department. Cook called her one of the most efficient blockers on the team and her average jumped from .58 blocks per set to .78. Sweet also finished with two fewer block errors despite recording 31 more blocks as a sophomore.
Cook’s goal for Sweet heading into the year was for her to develop into a six-rotation player, but she wasn’t quite ready and that never materialized. Perhaps one more offseason is what she needs (Foecke didn’t make that transition until her junior year) and we’ll see a new Sweet next year, but no matter what her role is Nebraska needs her to improve her attacking efficiency and become more versatile as a hitter.
Freshman OH Capri Davis
Davis’ role changed a few different times during her freshman season. Ranked as the No. 21 recruit by PrepVolleyball.com coming out of Lake Ridge High School in Mansfield, Texas, the 6-foot-1 hitter split time at the L2 spot to start the year with Sun still recovering. Cook went back and forth between Davis and sophomore Sami Slaughter as it seemed that whoever started struggled while the other brought a nice spark off the bench.
Davis wasn’t ever afraid to take a big swing, but that led to plenty of errors as well. She had 45 kills and 28 errors in her firsts seven matches including a career-high 18 kills and nine errors in a five-set win against Creighton. Then Sun joined the lineup and Davis played sparingly over the first half of Big Ten play, recording six kills and no errors on eight swings across 12 sets with nine DNPs over a 17-match stretch.
But with Nebraska struggling in the rotation with Sweet on the left side of the court, Cook began subbing Davis in for her in that spot and stuck with it the rest of the season. She put down 28 kills with 16 errors on 68 swings in her last 11 matches.
For the season, Davis averaged 1.14 kills on .171 hitting.
Sophomore OH Sami Slaughter
Slaughter began the season in a rotation with Davis as mentioned above, recording 22 kills and 17 errors on 78 swings in Nebraska’s first six matches, but after Sun joined the lineup Slaughter only saw action in five more sets, putting down three kills on four swings.
As a freshman, Slaughter had five kills and two errors on 11 swings in six matches and seven total sets. On Thursday, Nebraska confirmed that the native of Harrisburg, South Dakota, would be returning to her home state, transferring to South Dakota for her final two seasons. The Coyotes went 21-10 last season and made the NCAA Tournament.
“We appreciate all that Sami has done for our program the last two years and hope she has a great finish to her collegiate career at South Dakota,” Cook said in a release.
Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class includes a pair of highly-touted outside hitters in Madi Kubik and Riley Zuhn, both of whom were named first-team Under Armour All-Americans this year.
Kubik is a 6-foot-1 hitter from West Des Moines, Iowa, who PrepVolleyball.com has ranked No. 4 overall in the 2019 class. The last top-5 national recruit the Huskers landed from Iowa (Foecke) turned out pretty well for the Huskers. Cubic was named MVP of the East team at the Under Armour All-America match played at the Final Four in Minneapolis. Cubic led Wes Des Moines Valley to a 41-4 record while averaging 5.16 kills per set on .382 hitting as a senior.
Zuhn is a 6-foot-5 outside hitter from Fort Collins, Colorado who was ranked 32nd overall. She averaged 3.7 kills per set while hitting .421 as a senior for Fossil Ridge. Middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach is the tallest player on the team currently at 6-foot-5, so Zuhn will bring a different dynamic to the outside hitter group with her height.
Sun, Davis and Sweet will get the first crack at winning the L1, L2 and opposite starting positions next year, but both freshmen — Kubik in particular — will be part of that battle as well. Foecke leaves big shoes to fill, but all five hitters were top-35 recruits coming out of high school so Cook has plenty of talent on his hands to mold and shape into a dangerous group of attackers for 2019.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.