After a rough month of October, the Huskers are back on track and have won four straight matches to open November. The Huskers swept Iowa on Wednesday before taking down a top-15 Michigan team 3-1 in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
“I thought we did a good job last week,” Coach John Cook said. “We held Iowa to their lowest hitting efficiency of the year and then Michigan was a great match; we won two really close, tight games. We had to just will them out. So I thought it was a good week. We got better and another big road trip this week.”
The Huskers will play two more road matches this week — at Purdue on Friday and at Indiana on Saturday — before returning home for the final two matches of the regular season. Cook gave his captains a chance to take Monday off for rest as the team gears up for the stretch run, but seniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney passed.
“I asked them about taking the day off and they said they wanted to train,” Cook said. “Either they’re working me for something or they want to get better. That’s probably a pretty good indication of where they’re at.”
The top 12 in the AVCA Coaches Poll remained mostly unchanged besides Wisconsin picking up enough votes to pull into a tie for seventh with Penn State after coming in at No. 8 last week. The Boilermakers held steady at No. 12 while Michigan fell from No. 15 to No. 19.
On Saturday, the Wolverines dominated the second half of the first set to beat the Huskers 25-15, but Nebraska bounced back to win the last three sets to take the match.
“I just think Michigan came out playing really well and I think we were a little flat,” Cook said. “We had a really late night of travel and it just took us a while. Michigan had to come down a little bit and we had to raise our level a little bit. It was just more of taking their first big swing, hanging in there and they came down to earth a little bit.”
Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun struggled mightily early on against Michigan, but she bounced back to finish with 17 kills. That is the kind of resiliency that Cook is trying to instill in all of his young players.
“She’s definitely learning how to be a great player in big moments,” Cook said. “Even though she may struggle at times — but Mikaela [Foecke] struggles in early games and early matches as well. I mean, Mikaela got aced three times I think against Michigan. But those guys are learning how to work through that. We call it ‘next point mentality.’ That’s something we’ve been working on.”
Despite her struggles in serve receive, Foecke put forth a dominant effort against the Wolverines on Saturday. She finished with 22 kills on .465 hitting with eight digs, five blocks and an ace.
“She’s just a warrior and I think she thinks she can take over a match when we need it,” Cook said. “I’m seeing her like when we need an ace, she really hits a tough serve and when we need a big kills, she’s been able to kill it, big block. She’s big-time.”
Foecke is averaging 3.71 kills per set on .303 hitting on nearly 300 more attempts than any other hitter on the team. Opposing teams know what Foecke is capable of but haven’t quite figured out a way to stop her no matter how much defensive attention they send her way.
“That’s what the great ones do,” Cook said. “It’s no different than basketball players — they get double teams and they’ve still got to score; they know who’s going to take the shot. It’s no different than a running back having to get a first down when they need it. That’s volleyball. You’ve got to be able to find a way to make it happen when everybody knows where it’s going. That’s why we train that so hard.”
Foecke was named Big Ten Player of the Week for her efforts. Add in the Iowa game and she averaged 5.00 kills per set while hitting at a .413 clip. She went over 1,500 career kills against the Wolverines.
Part of Foecke’s attack numbers have to do with how often Nebraska has been out of system this season. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames is 12th in the Big Ten in digs per set at 3.41, and if she’s digging balls that means she’s not going to be the one setting. To that point, Cook said Hames has probably been a little too aggressive in attempting to make first contact so often.
“She’s so good defensively that she knows where the ball’s going to be hit and she just goes,” Cook said. “She’s taking balls that probably aren’t hers but I’d rather have somebody dig them so they don’t go to the ground. She reads really, really well.”
Cook said he’s trying to find that balance between letting Hames do what she does well and encouraging her to trust in her teammates a little more.
“I just remind her that there are other people out there playing defense,” Cook said. “But it’s a fine line between being too aggressive and not aggressive enough. On defense, it’s just like a scene from the movie ‘Top Gun’ — you don’t have time to think, you just have to react.”
Unfortunately, Cook said his “Top Gun” reference did not really resonate with any of his players.
“I asked my team, nobody has seen ‘Top Gun,’” Cook said. “So we’re going to have a ‘Top Gun’ movie night.”
Hames joined Foecke on the weekly Big Ten honor as the conference named her Freshman of the Week for the second time this season. She averaed 11.71 assists and 5.0 digs per set for the week while recoring her 12th straight double-double against the Wolverines.
Cook wouldn’t have had any time for movies last week. Between practice, game planning and travel, he and his staff carved out time to follow the Nebraska high school state volleyball tournament last week. Millard North took the Class A title while Omaha Skutt, featuring 2021 Nebraska commit Lindsay Krause, beat out Elkhorn South and another 2021 Nebraska commit in Rylee Gray for the Class B title.
“We all went to as many matches as we could after practice and then Lindsey [Petersen] was having it on the iPad or phone on the bus so we got to see glimpses of the matches here and there,” Cook said. “Of course, Lindsey was watching the small towns because she was a small-town player but here’s the bottom line: there were 27 Division I players playing in the state tournament in a state with only 1.8 million people. That’s mind-boggling, mind-boggling if you think about it.”
Cook mentioned several factors that have contributed to the high level of play seen in Nebraska at the high school level including former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit’s involvement with developing quality high school coaches during his days in Lincoln, the proliferation of matches on TV that allow girls to grow up watching the game more closely and the success the NCAA has had with bringing Final Fours to Omaha.
“There are good female athletes in the state,” Cook said. “They get great coaching, they get great training and I think a lot of them are multi-sport athletes so that helps their development. There’s a lot of really good volleyball played here; the level’s really, really good.”
Cook also offered his thoughts on the evolution of the game and the direction in which it is headed from the high school ranks up through college.
“I think they’re getting closer, because the net’s lower, to playing like the men’s game,” Cook said. “That’s why I hire guys from the men’s game, we watch the men’s game, because just look at Omaha Skutt — they’re huge; they could be a college team. The game is getting big and physical at the net and continues to do that. But with the sub rules, you can specialize a lot and create great back-row players as well. I think the evolution’s going more like the men’s game.”
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.