The 2019 Volleyball Nations League brought three former Huskers back to Lincoln this weekend and each of them took a unique path to get there.
Team USA veteran and captain Jordan Larson led her club team, Eczacıbaşı, to a runner-up finish in the Turkish Women’s Volleyball League in early May, falling in a five-match series to champion VakıfBank.
Coach Karch Kiraly gave Larson the first two weeks of Volleyball Nations League Play off as he experimented with lineups and gave newcomers a chance to get their feet wet. But when the United States took to the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday to face Korea, Larson was there.
After a slow start, the United States — with a mix of veterans like Larson and young players — beat Korea in four sets as Larson found her rhythm.
“Oh goodness, there was a little rust with playing with new players,” Larson said after the match. “Some of these girls I just met a couple days ago, so getting on the court the first time and kind of learning each other is always an interesting transition. I thought it went well, considering all the obstacles we had to go through.”
Kiraly left Larson on the bench on Wednesday, a sweep over Germany, and inserted her back into the lineup for Thursday’s week three finale, a four-set loss to Brazil. Larson had 17 kills, three aces and a block in the eight sets she played in during the event in Lincoln.
Kelsey Robinson is the other Team USA veteran who once competed in the scarlet and cream. During the club season, she played outside hitter for VakıfBank — the team that beat Larson’s club to win the Turkish League.
At this time last summer, however, she was transitioning to the libero position for the United States and she stuck there for the rest of the season. After playing on the outside for most of her career, she was suddenly tasked with playing a completely different role for the good of the team.
“I think I just try to take everything that comes at me one step at a time, whether it’s libero or outside, and try to learn from that,” Robinson said. “That libero role really helps me to see the game a lot better and then to go overseas and transition to outside, I got a lot of great experience there and I’m just happy to be back with USA.”
When Robinson left Team USA to return to her own team, she wasn’t quite sure what the future held for her.
“It was not defined that I would be back outside,” Robinson said. “There was still the question if I would play libero or outside this year. I met with Karch about February and he and I talked and I just said I’ll do what I have to do and I just want to be a part of USA.”
Ultimately, Kiraly decided to move her back to her more natural outside hitter position and she made her 2019 debut on Wednesday against Germany, leading the team with 18 points.
“She’s quite good at both positions,” Kiraly said. “I don’t know that it was so much what she had to show [to move back to outside hitter], it was that she performed a really selfless act for the team. We had a need at that position last year and she embraced that role. Then she went back overseas and had a very good club season playing for one of the best club teams in the world, VakıfBank in Istanbul, at her outside hitter position. Put that together with a combination of factors and that’s where she fits in really well for the USA.”
Ultimately, that’s what matters most for Robinson — that she fits in.
“It’s so important to me to be a part of USA because it’s where I’m happiest,” Robinson said. “I just want to do that as long as I can.”
Robinson started alongside Larson in the final match on Thursday, finishing with six kills while splitting time.
The newest Husker in the USA program had the longest journey to take it back to Lincoln, however. For Mikaela Foecke, the last two months have been nothing short of a whirlwind. Her travels began back in April when she attended the AAU Sullivan Award Ceremony in New York City in late April. From there, she had to return to Lincoln to take her finals and graduate, then pack up her stuff and move out, beginning the next phase of her life.
That next phase included a flight to California to begin training for the Volleyball Nations League. The first week of competition for the U.S. was in Bulgaria, where USA swept the competition. From there, she flew back to get in three days of training, then flew home (a trip that included some complications that ultimately led to her flight arriving at 4 a.m. that Thursday). On that Saturday, she got married. Then she hopped in a car and made the five-hour drive from West Point, Iowa, to Lincoln and stepped right onto the practice court on Sunday evening. On Tuesday, she was in the starting lineup alongside Larson.
“It’s impressive when you think about what she’s done for the first three weeks — played her first six matches for USA, a little thing called a wedding in between, but not just flying to Iowa, flying to USA for three days of practice then flying to Iowa, then getting married, then jumping in a car for five hours to come here, getting here at 5:30 on Sunday and we started practice at 6,” Kiraly said. “Astounding what she’s been through and how even she’s been — that’s what strikes a lot of people who don’t know her that well, which is a lot of us in this program, is just how steady and even she can be, how chill she can be which is I think something that she demonstrated over and over for the Nebraska program, for the Huskers over the course of her career. No matter what was at stake, there was a really nice even presence from Mikaela.”
Foecke said that first practice after the wedding was a little rough, but learning that she was going to get the start in front of a crowd of 4,500 mostly Nebraska fans eased the pain.
“When I found out I was going to start I was really just ecstatic,” Foecke said. “Obviously there are so many great players here and to have the opportunity to prove myself and play among some of the best, I’m just so grateful for that and so grateful for all the hard work everyone else has put in to get us to this point.”
Foecke had eight kills and an ace in the first set. She started again on Wednesday against Germany, recording 13 kills and an ace. She didn’t start on Thursday against Brazil, but Kiraly called her name in the third set and she responded with eight kills in the last two games, providing an offensive spark.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the week came in the first match when Foecke put down an out-of-system kills from the back row on a set from Larson.
“I think it’s just so satisfying to be able to execute well at a high level and to have it coming from Jordan and obviously to be in front of a home crowd here back in Lincoln is just really satisfying,” Foecke said.
Larson called Foecke “steady Eddie” and “a rock.” Kiraly hasn’t gotten the chance to coach her for very long, but she’s already made a big impression.
“She is the rare six or seven tool player in that she has all of the skills,” Kiraly said after the win over Korea. “She passed at a really high level tonight — that’s unusual for most outside hitters coming out of college volleyball. But she has all the tools: she can serve, pass, set, hit, block, defend. I remember she had a match against Minnesota in Devaney I think earlier this year where she had like 30 digs or some crazy amount when they had a home match.
“So she has all those tools, she connects well with people, she’s a good teammate, she plays very even and poised, and so she’s a steadying influence. There are a lot of things to like about her, and I could go on and one about every single person who’s here and a lot of people who are at home also in terms of their special attributes. I’m really blessed to get to work with a very talented, skilled, hard-working, intelligent group of women.”
Foecke said she’s grateful to have the other former Huskers in the program that she can look up to and learn from as she continues assimilating to the USA way of doing things.
“To have Jordan and Kelsey along my side is so great and Justine [Wong-Orantes] and Kadie [Rolfzen] obviously back in Anaheim, I think it’s just really great to know that you have a lot of people to lean on and that have already been through it and can help you maybe do it better than they did at the very beginning,” Foecke said.
While Larson and Robinson might be reaching the end of their careers with the national program, Foecke is poised to continue to Husker legacy at the international level.
“I think she has a really bright future,” Robinson said. “She’s got a cannon for an arm and great ball control, and obviously she’s an all-around player so I think once she gets some experience at the pro level she’s going to be dominant.”
There was a time not too long ago that Foecke wasn’t even sure she wanted to play volleyball beyond college. In fact, she applied for and was accepted into graduate school at Iowa State to become a veterinarian. However, she ultimately decided to give professional volleyball a shot and in addition to participating in the national team program, she’s set to join an Italian club once that season rolls around.
“I’m really happy with [my decision],” Foecke said. “I’ve made some really great friends already and we’re already all kidding around, and I just love that, and I love playing volleyball and I think that my biggest fear was that I would no longer love it if I came to this level because you hear a lot of girls that get burned out and so far I’d say I even love it more.”
The Volleyball Nations League rolls on next week as the United States has already flown to China for the next round of matches. However, Foecke did not make the trip as Kiraly elected to take veteran Michelle Bartsch-Hackley along with Larson and Robinson as the three outside hitters on the 14-player roster. However, based on the way Kiraly talked about her, this week likely won’t be the last time Foecke dons the stars and stripes, and if Kiraly has any say in the matter, it won’t be the last time Husker fans in Lincoln will get a chance to watch her play in person.
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.