The Huskers (31-4) got the opponent they wanted for the National Championship after the No. 2 seed Florida Gators (30-1) knocked off No. 3 seed and reigning champion Stanford in five sets on Thursday night.
“A lot of the girls, when we were just kind of deciding who would we rather play, a lot of the girls were like ‘I want to play Florida, I want to kick their butts because they beat us early on in the season,’ senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side because we’re our biggest opponents and we determine how well we play. We’re just going to focus on our side and play Husker volleyball.”
The Gators beat Nebraska in five sets in the Huskers’ second match of the season back on Aug. 26th, although Hunter was sidelined with an injury.
>> Hunter (@KellyHunter03) isn’t much of a Tweeter, but she broke her social media silence on Friday after the Huskers’ five-set win over Penn State in the semifinals.
First tweet in a while because man I love this team pic.twitter.com/ibgtVd16GP
— Kelly Hunter (@KellyHunter03) December 15, 2017
Prior to that tweet, Hunter’s last few posts were retweets (most of them appear to be from 2016) and her last original tweet was from August of 2015. She gave a pretty good reason for firing her account back up, however.
“There were so many cool pictures that came out, and we all want to post basically every single one,” Hunter said. “But for some reason that picture, we were all in such a tight huddle, and you could see the logo for the championships, and I just thought it was a good picture. But like I said in my tweet, I love this team, and this has probably been my favorite year since I've been here, of my five. People liked it, loved it. It's just one of those great pictures that you'll never forget.”
The picture she loved so much just happened to be shot by Hail Varsity’s own Aaron Babcock.
>> The upperclassmen are the foundation of this year’s squad, but Nebraska doesn’t get anywhere near the National Championship without the freshman class making a big impact. Jazz Sweet, Lauren Stivirns and the serving substitution duo of Hunter Atherton and Hayler Densberger have all played key roles in this run.
“They’re amazing,“ senior setter Kelly Hunter said.“It’s not every year you can have freshmen come in and step up and play and be so impactful.”
This class did, however, and the freshman have been as big a part of the team’s success as the stars like Hunter, Briana Holman and Mikaela Foecke.
Sweet earned the starting right side hitter position from day one and has been solid all season for the most part. She was huge on Thursday with 12 kills on .375 hitting.
“Just to have Jazz on the right, a lefty who can put balls away in-system, out of system, it really holds the other team, makes them think, and they can never just release to the outside like most teams do,” Hunter said.
Stivrins only managed seven kills on .278 hitting against the Nittany Lions, but she was a force on defense with a career-high nine blocks, and the energetic freshman got even more fired following each passing rally.
“Lauren, she has such a presence out there,” Hunter said. “She really wants the ball, she wants every single point. She’s really kind of stepped up and almost taken on a leadership role, at least [on Thursday]. She was really trying to hype the team up and get us going, so it’s been really cool to see that.”
A quick scan through Babcock’s photo gallery will show you how exactly Stivrins was trying to “hype the team up.”
“If you just go through Twitter and look at all of our photos, she’s got some good faces, good reactions,” Hunter said. “We were just laughing at one on the bus on the way here. Just seeing her energy and feeling her vibe, and then when she comes in and she brings it, it’s so helpful for us who are out on the court all the time. We kind of feed off her.”
Even Atherton, who didn’t play at first but quickly took Denserberger’s spot, served up two key aces and kept the Nittany Lions off-balance every time she went back to the service line, even if she did finish with four errors as well.
Overall, Coach John Cook said he wasn’t surprised at all by his freshmen’s performance on the big stage.
“Those guys have been doing that all year,” Cook said. “Again, I said the Big Ten, we're in wars like this all the time. It brings them for that. I know Jazz was really excited because this is like her hometown, so I think she was pumped up. She struggled a little bit for a while, but, man, she turned it on in the end. It was great to see. Those guys compete. And Lauren made some huge plays for us and some long rallies. Got a couple blocks that were just really great, great plays, huge points for us to help us get momentum.”
>> That being said, perhaps the biggest surprise from this season is the rise of senior Annika Albrecht as an outside hitter. She found limited success through her first three years as a hitter, earning her way onto the floor as a defensive specialist. Cook finally gave her a chance to take the second left side hitter spot and run with it as a senior, but Albrecht hit .085 with 24 errors in her first five matches. However, she persevered and things clicked soon after that, culminating with her earning second-team All-America honors this year.
“Her story has been one of my personal favorites,” Hunter said. “Just seeing her grow as a person and as a player. Being a six-rotation player has been her dream since she got to Nebraska. She’s been living it this year and she’s been thriving and just killing it. I don’t think she ever doubted herself and none of us ever doubted her. If anything, we stepped behind her even more and tried to give her even more confidence. She’s really just kind of developed into that role.”
>> Albrecht wasn’t the only one who got off to a rough start while adjusting to a new role. Junior Kenzie Maloney, sliding over from defensive specialist to libero, recorded 15 service errors while mustering just three aces in her first six matches.
However, after she settled into her role, Maloney transformed herself into a real weapon at the service line. Since that rough start, Maloney has totaled 33 aces with just 25 errors, a remarkable statistic. Against Penn State, Maloney served up a career-high-tying four aces without a single error.
>> Nebraska volleyball joined in with many others to show support to ESPN’s Holly Rowe who is working the sidelines for the Final Four while also battling against cancer.
Just weeping as I read words of encouragement from all 4 @NCAAVolleyball Championship teams. Cancer doesn’t stand a chance with these winners on my team. THANK YOU for inspiring me to keep pushing to be here & tell YOUR stories! Honored & blessed beyond measure! pic.twitter.com/PKPSOKkkR0
— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) December 16, 2017
>> Some fun facts for the Huskers: Nebraska is set to play in its eighth National Championship and is going for its fifth title; three of those titles have come under John Cook, who has led the Huskers to the championship match for the fifth time in 18 seasons; Nebraska is riding a nation-leading 18-match winning streak into Saturday; Nebraska is now 8-3 against Penn State in the NCAA Tournament and leads the all-time series 21-10; Nebraska is now 11-3 against top-25 teams (with two losses coming without Hunter), 6-0 against top-10 teams and 3-0 against top-five teams; the Huskers are now 6-2 against the No. 1 team in the country under Cook (3-1 against Penn State); Hunter is now 15-1 in the NCAA Tournament, the most postseason wins ever for a Nebraska starting setter.
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.