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Conversations with Cook: Senior Leadership Key for Young Huskers
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Conversations with Cook: Senior Leadership Key for Young Huskers

November 13, 2018

Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke is playing the best volleyball of her career right now. She’s putting up career-highs in kills per set (3.71), digs per set (2.68), blocks per set (0.76) and aces per set (0.37) and her hitting percentage as the team’s main threat is just one one-thousandth behind her best of .304 set as a sophomore while playing alongside the Rolfzen twins and others.

As the hitters around her struggle to find consistency, Foecke has been a rock for the Huskers.

“I think she’s playing at a Player-of-the-Year level,” Coach John Cook said. “Her stats are up from last year. She’s hitting way higher than she did last year. She’s leading a really young team — she has to play with a freshman setter. We’re the only top-10 team with a freshman setter. I hope people respect the job she’s doing as a leader of our team and the challenge she’s had of leading a very young team and knowing there’s a lot of spotlight on her.”

Sophomore left side Lexi Sun and sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet have seen their error numbers spike in recent weeks. Cook said he’s hoping the two young hitters can learn from Foecke as they look to pull themselves out of their slumps.

“If you make an error, you get blocked, you don’t kill it, you’ve got to keep the mindset of just keep working and swinging,” Cook said. “It’s like a baseball average — if you can hit .300, you’re all-world. That means you’re failing seven out of 10 swings. It’s just a mindset of nothing bothers you. If you’re around Mikaela, nothing bothers her. She’s about as even-keeled as you can get. That’s what we’re trying to get Lexi and Jazz to be more like that.”

When asked to clarify his player of the year comment, Cook tossed out both Big Ten and National Player of the Year as possibilities, though he said they’d need to make a serious run to get Foecke in the discussion from a national perspective. 

“I’ll put her up against anybody,” Cook said.

Foecke’s fellow captain, senior libero Kenzie Maloney is playing at an incredible high level herself. Cook said she’s elite at first contact (digging the ball and passing it to the setter) and that she has really embraced her leadership role. Cook said the two seniors really work well together as leaders.

“They don’t say a lot, but when they say something it’s really, really important and valid,” Cook said. “I think they hold people accountable at a really high level. They take care of stuff they never tell me about with the team, so they have the confidence and the respect from the team to be able to do that. I’ll ask them about something and they’ll say ‘Coach, we’ve got it; don’t worry about it.’ I couldn’t be any more proud of those two and I continue in my head to write the speech for the banquet, the things I want to say about the job they’ve done.”

Foecke and Maloney aren’t the only seniors on the team, however. Reserve setter Brooke Smith is also making her presence felt even if she isn’t seeing the court all that often in matches.

“Brooke’s awesome and I think the biggest thing is just her in practice, around the team,” Cook said. “Mikaela and Kenzie needed the support so she gives them that. Just her work ethic and her energy and enthusiasm is just a great role model for our team every day of how you’ve got to come to work every day. Remember, we’ve got eight players that had no clue about that. There are a lot of things that Brooke does that maybe aren’t reflected in playing time and that stuff but she’s been huge for us.”

Freshman Nicklin Hames handles all the setting duties, but Cook did have a plan for Smith to play a role in specific situations. He rolled out a double-substitution late in some matches where sophomore outside hitter-turned-middle blocker Anezka Szabo replaced the 5-foot-10 Hames in the front row for blocking purposes while Smith checked in in the back row for a point or two. However, Szabo suffered a high ankle sprain in practice at the end of September and has been on the shelf ever since. 

“We wanted to do the double-sub, but when Anezka got hurt, it’s just really tough,” Cook said. “I’m putting people out there that don’t know what they’re doing at the net. That’s really made it tough. Hopefully Anezka is — she’s getting close. We’re going to need that in some of these matches.”

Cook said Szabo is off crutches and out of her walking boot and took part in come controlled drills wearing just an ankle brace for protection. Once she returns, Cook said he plans to use the double-substitution again.

“It’s a great weapon,” Cook said. “Anezka’s a great blocker, Brooke’s a great server and when teams are taking advantage of Nicklin, it gives us an option, something we can do.”

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