Maybe the match that best tells the story of Kelly Hunter’s remarkable career at Nebraska was an intrasquad scrimmage during a season in which she didn’t play. Headed into the 2014 Red-White game, Coach John Cook had decided he was going to ask Hunter to redshirt as a sophomore. Unconventional, yes, but the Huskers had Mary Pollmiller returning at setter for her senior season, and she had consistently graded out better than Hunter in preseason practices.
Hunter didn’t know it yet, but that was the plan. For her, however, the competition was ongoing.
So she went out and led the White team in assists. And the Red team. Hunter was drafted to the White squad, which featured just one starter from the 2013 season, middle blocker Meghan Haggerty. Alongside Hunter were reserve outside hitter Alicia Ostrander, sophomore libero Justine Wong-Orantes and true freshman Annika Albrecht. Red countered with three starters and most of the firepower, including Cecilia Hall and Kadie and Amber Rolfzen.
According to Cook, there was no question White was the weaker team but it quickly went up 2-0. Hunter and Pollmiller switched sides. White won the third, but, with Hunter setting, Red took the fourth, its only set won of the night. Hunter had 23 assists for White, 26 for Red and Cook had a new decision to make.
Prior to the scrimmage, it seemed clear that redshirting Hunter was the best choice for the team and for Hunter. After the scrimmage, perhaps the latter was only still true. Hunter had played in 16 matches as a true freshman, but, as Cook recalls, she may have enjoyed being a college freshman too much. It wasn’t a question of talent or even leadership, but how ready the team was to follow Hunter. There was also the towering presence of the Rolfzens, Hunter’s high school teammates. Cook thought that a redshirt season would give Hunter the chance to forge her own identity, rather than forever be part of a trio.
He stuck with his gut. It was a big bet.
“There are not many people more competitive than Kelly,” Cook told me last year. “Both of her parents were athletes at Nebraska, so I knew it probably would not be a decision that went over really well initially, and it did not.”
Hunter ultimately placed her trust in her coach, and a year later she captained a national-championship team as a redshirt sophomore. Two years and two more captaincies later, Nebraska is in the Final Four for a third straight time, an unprecedented run in the program’s storied history. It took Cook all of four sentences to mention Hunter’s role in that after beating Kentucky in the Lexington Regional Final.
“We had to dig as deep tonight as we ever have all season,” he said. “But this team is also led by a setter who’s now putting herself in an elite category; three straight Final Fours for Kelly.”
It can be tough to quantify setters’ impact on the game by looking at the box score. They rack up assists, but they’re supposed to get the assists. You can look to serving or digs and find additional evidence, but, like quarterbacks, winning is perhaps the ultimate measure.
Raising the bar at Nebraska isn’t easy. Cook has won 88.5 percent of his 598 matches since taking over in Lincoln in 2000, the best percentage in the country over that stretch. Hunter has started 102 of those matches, missing just two — Nebraska’s opening-weekend losses to Oregon and Florida this year — over the past three seasons. Her record as captain and starter: 93-9 (.912).
But even those 3 percentage points and three straight Final Fours don’t paint the complete picture. Hunter’s teams are also 14-4 against top-10 opponents, including 5-0 this season. Penn State — the Huskers’ only equal in the Big Ten in terms of history, and Thursday night’s opponent — has never beaten a Nebraska team with Hunter in the lineup. Six tries, six losses. The Nittany Lions have also lost just five home matches to any opponent since the start of 2015. Hunter was there for three of them.
Can Hunter finish her career with a perfect record against prolific Penn State? If she does it probably still won't accurately measure everything Hunter has brought to Nebraska’s program. Much of it is unquantifiable, intangible. The Huskers’ presence in Kansas City this week is only additional proof of how hard it is to pin down.
“I think this year, on paper, we might not be the most talented, but I think we have a lot of great talent and a lot of great hitters,” Hunter said after beating Kentucky. “We have that chemistry that really brings us to another level. We just go out there and have fun and have the mentality of point-by-point. Last year I don’t know if we had that.”
Point-by-point is one of Cook’s bedrock philosophies. Don’t think about the effort and excellence it will take to win three-of-five sets from a Penn State or Florida or Stanford. Instead, focus on all of the work put in to win one point against one of those powerful programs. Then do it again. And again.
Part of the reason Cook redshirted Hunter was to set the stage for a run like this. He knew he had a singular leader, the type that doesn't come around very often. Maybe Cook was also curious to see how high a player like Hunter could take a team when she was the undeniable focal point. Or maybe he knew that, too, and just wanted the rest of us to see.
The journey to Kansas City in 2017 is perhaps the best example yet of the team-first philosophy that defines Nebraska. This Husker team in particular proves the value of tightly knit teams and uncommon leadership over pure talent and stacked rosters. Hunter has been the Huskers’ glue for three seasons now, but this one should go down as the stickiest, the easiest to remember when it comes time to remember the type of leader she was.
That time will be either one or two matches from now. Enjoy it, Husker fans. It is one of the most singular careers in a Nebraska uniform I have ever witnessed in any sport, but take it from a guy who has seen more than I have.
“To see this is just super, super satisfying and rewarding,” Cook said last Saturday. “The way she leads this group, it is incredible. I have said, ‘She is becoming one of the greatest leaders Nebraska volleyball has ever had.’ Her dad told me that when we recruited her in high school, he told me she was special. Of course, a couple times she almost got kicked out of Nebraska volleyball but she has turned out to be pretty special.”
Hunter, seated a few feet away when Cook mentioned that freshman year, laughed and gave an exaggerated roll of the eyes. “So dramatic,” she whispered to fellow senior Brian Holman.
She can get away with a little good-natured ribbing of one of the game’s great coaches. That, too, is part of what makes her what she is. She knows when to relieve the tension, and when to dial it up.
And if Cook is perhaps guilty of a little embellishment for the sake of the story, who can really blame him? Epic careers should read like an epic.