Kelly Hunter is in a difficult spot. As a junior, she is the sole captain on what has been the best volleyball team in the country most of the season, a team that includes three All-American seniors. As the setter, every point goes through her, and if she struggles, the team around her will have a difficult time finding success.
That is an incredible amount of pressure for any one individual, and according to Coach John Cook, that pressure started to get to her as the race for the Big Ten title intensified.
“Kelly usually, if she’s having fun, loose, cracking jokes, making fun of me, then she’s in a pretty good place,” Cook said. “That’s how she rolls. When she gets really quiet, which is how she was going down the Big Ten stretch, that’s when I start worrying. I think that’s a key for her. When she’s loose and fun, that’s when she plays her best.”
Hunter wasn’t loose during the final few weeks of conference play. When the Huskers lost in five sets at then-No. 2 Minnesota — just their second loss of the season — the pressure mounted even higher.
“When we really started feeling pressure is when we lost against Minnesota because our margin for error went way down after we loss that match,” Cook said. “That’s when the pressure felt like we could really mess this Big Ten championship up. Remember, this group had never won a Big Ten championship so it was a big deal for us to get that done.”
The Huskers managed to hold on and take home their first Big Ten title since 2011 and got somewhat of a reprieve in the first couple of rounds in the NCAA tournament as they faced New Hampshire and TCU and swept both of them. However, Nebraska advanced to take on No. 16 seed and conference rival Penn State in the Sweet 16, and the pressure was back on.
“Penn State’s in our conference, we played them twice already, and that was a third-round match,” Cook said. “Typically you’re not playing Penn State in a third-round match in the NCAA Tournament when you’re a number one seed. So that’s what kind of changed all that.”
Cook said Hunter made six or seven mistakes per set against the Nittany Lions, and the Huskers were on the brink of elimination, down 0-2 in the match and trailing 24-22 in the third set. However, they dug deep and reeled off four straight points to win the set then went on to roll through the fourth and fifth sets to win the match and advance. In the Elite Eight, Nebraska dominated Washington in a sweep to earn a ticket to the Final Four for the second straight year.
“I definitely think she is [back to her normal self] and you saw that against Washington and at the end of Penn State as well,” sophomore outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said about Hunter. “I think everyone was. It’s more of a point-by-point mentality. Coming in the No. 1 seed, it’s a lot of pressure on yourself; it’s not just getting there, you have to win it all. I think that making it to the Final Four, now we’re just here, we’re here to win and play our hearts out and just get after it.”
Cook said Hunter was nearly flawless against the Huskies, making just one mistake the entire match.
“Once the pressure got off from Penn State she’s playing free and that’s how she played last year in the Final Four,” Cook said.
As Hunter goes, so go the Huskers.
“I think [the other players] respect Kelly and they want to do well for her,” Cook said. “I think they like her and she’s got that personalty that if you go to a party, she’s the one you want to go with because she’s going to have fun and she knows everybody. I just think she has a great relationship with everybody on her team.”
Foecke confirmed Cook’s read of the situation.
“I think it’s her mentality,” Foecke said. “She’s always working so hard that you want to work just as hard as her. She’s working so hard to give us a perfect set that you want to get the kill for her even if it’s not there, and I think that’s something that is really special. Not a lot of setters have that ability … Everyone wants to pick her up if she has a bad set or get the kill for her every single time.”
Heading into the Final Four, Hunter is back to her normal self and the Huskers believe they are in a great rhythm offensively with Hunter at the center of that.
“Kelly is just doing a really good job of being confident in herself right now and confident in all her hitters and everyone on her team,” senior middle blocker Amber Rolfzen said. “She’s making it really easy on all of us, getting us a lot of one-on-ones, and it’s just flowing very well right now and going good.”
Hunter also has some extra motivation beyond just going back-to-back. Hunter was originally part of this senior class along with high school teammates Kadie and Amber Rolfzen as well as Justine Wong-Orantes but redshirted during her second year on campus. Hunter will have one more year left of her career regardless of this weekend’s outcome, but for the Rolfzen twins, this is the final run.
“I’ve played with them for so long and to know that it’s about to be over is really sad,” Hunter said. “Coach always says that one team gets their group of seniors to end on a win. I couldn’t ask for a better senior class and obviously we want to do it for them just as much as we want to do it for ourselves individually and for our program. Knowing that it’s their last year, I think there’s kind of a little incentive to send them out on a good note.”
Pay attention to Kelly Hunter as the Huskers warm up leading up to their semifinal showdown with Texas on Thursday. If Hunter is bouncing around, smiling and cracking jokes, the Huskers are probably in store for a good day.
The pressure from the Big Ten is off, and as Cook is fond of saying, Hunter has a very strong “why” driving her.