LINCOLN, Neb. – The season rolls on for the 22-1 and unanimously top-ranked Nebraska volleyball team. Over the weekend, the Huskers won at Penn State and Rutgers and sits alone in first place in the Big Ten.
Head coach John Cook took a few minutes away from the podium after his weekly Monday press conference to discuss the state of his team.
Though Nebraska has terrific offensive talent throughout its lineup, Cook explained why he has and always will focus on defense and passing as the foundation of his program.
“We’re going to go against great defensive teams, so we could hit really well and still not hit .300,” Cook said. “But if we can hold our opponents to .150 or lower, our chances of winning are a lot better. We could have a great offensive night, but these teams are so good defensively that you’re not going to put up huge numbers all the time.”
The leader of that defense is senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes, and the Huskers got a nice surprise when she was cleared to play Friday morning before the team’s match against Penn State. Wong-Orantes went through concussion protocol after taking a hard shot to the head against Illinois and missing the team’s following game.
“We were prepared to play without her, but she’s a huge part of our team so I think it was a huge boost for us,” Cook said.
The Huskers won that match in five sets, marking the second straight year Nebraska won at Penn State. A key to both of those wins was outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, who had a career-high 22 kills in the match last year and put up 19 more last Friday.
“I think she likes big matches, and that was a big match,” Cook said.
Since the Huskers’ lone loss of the season to Ohio State on Oct. 1, Foecke has really found her stride. In the 10 matches since, Foecke has hit .321 with 2.77 kills per set.
“I think she’s done well,” Cook said. “Every week I look at stats and her stats are significantly higher than last year attacking-wise, efficiency-wise. She’s serving great. She’s improved as a blocker. I think she’s done a really nice job improving and is playing at a level above where she was last year … I think she’s handled it really well. The hard thing is I’d like to get her more in the front row because where we start, she rotates right out. We have to keep looking at that because she can take over a match.”
As good as she has been with the ball in play, Cook said Foecke’s greatest value lies in her mere presence on the team.
“I think Mikaela’s biggest contribution to our team is just her confidence and she is such a giving teammate and I think she helps our team morale and chemistry and the vibe, just how she interacts with everybody,” Cook said. “It doesn’t matter whether she’s playing well or not playing well; it never changes. We have some players on our team that it will go up and down depending on how they’re playing. With Mikaela, you can never tell. You can’t tell if she’s hitting .500 or -.500; she’s always the same and she’s just a great teammate.”
Nebraska’s other left side hitter, senior Andie Malloy, also had a great weekend and matched Foecke with 19 kills against the Nittany Lions. She hit .306 over the weekend.
“We really worked hard last week on trying to correct a couple things for her, so she was really confident which was really good to see … Footwork, where she starts … mentality, what shots to try to hit,” Cook said. “You have to remember that she’s only been in our gym since August.”
Malloy joined the Huskers as a graduate transfer from Baylor and has been up-and-down as she’s made the adjustment to playing Big Ten volleyball. However, the transition off the court has been easy.
“If you spend five minutes with Andie she’s got a great personality, she’s very easy-going, she’s very happy, she’s really easy to talk to,” Cook said. “Of any transfer we’ve ever had, she fits in seamlessly. It’s just her personality … She already knew Kadie and Amber [Rolfzen] and Bri [Holman]. It was really a seamless deal. You’d never know she was a transfer.”
Holman, a middle blocker who transferred from LSU last year, is the other newcomer in the rotation and she also has struggled at times to find a rhythm against Big Ten competition. This past weekend – where she was held to seven kills and .100 hitting against Penn State but rebounded for 12 kills and .688 hitting against Rutgers – encapsulated her season well.
“She’s had some huge moments and then some moments where she’s still learning how to compete against the top teams,” Cook said. “I think she’s taking steps. Obviously at times she can be dominant but there are other times where she disappears. We’ve got to get her to be dominant, but that’s a setter, passer, hitter combination.”
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.