KANSAS CITY — Coach John Cook said that he redshirted Kelly Hunter after her freshman year to give her a chance to write her own story without Kadie and Amber Rolfzen.
On Thursday night, the senior from Papillion added another chapter to that tale, perhaps the most impressive yet.
Hunter recorded the match-sealing kill in the fifth set to close out her career 7-0 against the Nittany Lions as a starter and send the Huskers on to the National Championship match.
“Kelly's a competitor,” Cook said. “She's beaten Penn State seven straight times. I mean, you tell me anybody ever in the history of volleyball that's done that? I don't know what it is about her when she plays them, but, again, they always bring out the best in us. She's a great competitor. We knew and she knew she had to play really well tonight for us to be able to beat Penn State … She’s running the show, she’s setting things up and she did a great job tonight.”
Hunter finished with 47 assists and 23 digs — both match highs — and chipped in six blocks as Nebraska beat Penn State 25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11 in front of a record 18,374 fans at the Sprint Center, most of whom were wearing red.
“This is Kansas City and there are a lot of Husker fans here,” Cook said. “For those of you who don't follow our program, there were 1.8 million people watching this thing tonight in the state of Nebraska. They're following this team, and you can see how many Nebraskans came down here. It's what makes it so cool about being a Husker and coaching and playing for Nebraska, because it is such a big deal. Regardless of what happens in the finals, this team will go down as a legendary team in the chronicles of Nebraska volleyball history.”
Junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke finished with a match-high 19 kills and 19 digs while seniors Briana Holman and Annika Albrecht recorded 13 kills apiece with Albrecht adding 13 digs and two aces.
Nebraska won the serve and pass battle decisively, finishing with 10 aces to 11 errors while the Nittany Lions managed just five aces to go with 14 errors. Nebraska out-hit Penn State .249 to .217 and the Huskers out-blocked the Nittany Lions (fifth in the country heading into the match) 13-12.
The Huskers finished with 90 digs as a team with five different players cracking double figures. Junior libero Kenzie Maloney finished with 21 digs and four aces without an error.
“We have to win, serve, block and defense,” Cook said. “We pride ourselves on that. That's our strength all year. It's our identity that we have for this team. We got some great defensive players back there, and Anni and Kenzie and Sydney [Townsend] lead that. We have to be relentless because we're not the most physical team. We don't have the most physical hitters. And that's just the way we go.”
Nebraska took the first set to extend its winning streak to seven straight sets, but Penn State took the next two games to put the Huskers in a hole. It took extra points to do it, but Nebraska pulled out the fourth set and extended the match then finished it off in the fifth.
“This team never ceases to amaze me with how resilient they are and how much fight they have and how hard they work together,” Cook said. “You know, we could have won it 3-0. We could have lost it in four. I mean, it was just a point-by-point battle, and we had the mindset going into this that we knew that's what it is going to be like. I think the Big Ten prepares us for matches like these. There's never any panic on our side, and they just continued to grind through it.
“It's a great win, and just really happy for these guys. They just showed what they're all about. That's why they're Big Ten champions.”
The loss is just the second of the season for the top-seeded Nittany Lions, and both of them came at the hands of the Huskers. Big Ten Player of the Year Simone Lee finished with 18 kills and Defensive Player of the Year Haleigh Washington added 13 kills and six blocks.
Nebraska got off to a strong 5-2 start, but Penn State tied it up with a 3-0 run. The Nittany Lions pulled ahead with a 4-0 run that made it 11-8 Penn State, spurring a Nebraska timeout. Lee started 5-for-5 on swings to lead the way early.
However, Nebraska snapped the run following a timeout and junior Maloney served the Huskers to a 5-0 run (including two aces). Nebraska extended the run to 9-1 to make it 17-12 Nebraska and Penn State got no closer than three the rest of the way.
Penn State opened the second with a 4-0 run but Nebraska battled back to tie it up at 7-7. Penn State took the lead again with a 7-3 run and held onto it until the Huskers put together a 4-0 run to take the lead 20-18. After a timeout, Penn State responded with three straight, and from there Nebraska tied it at 21-21, 22-22 and 23-23 before Penn State closed it out with a kill and a block.
Foecke opened the third with two quick points but Penn State responded with a 5-0 run. The Nittany Lions maintained a lead until the Huskers managed to tie it up a few different times then take the lead with a 4-0 run. Nebraska had Penn State on the ropes, leading 22-18, but the Nittany Lions roared back to take the set with an 8-2 run.
Penn State carried its momentum into the fourth set, opening with a 6-1 run to put the Huskers in a tough spot. However, Nebraska chipped away at Penn State’s lead until a 4-0 run capped by a pair of aces from redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton put the Huskers up 14-13.
“Hunter goes for it,” Cook said. “She brings a mindset. Even though she makes errors, she's going for it. She got us a run to help us win Game 3. I know those Penn State passers are worried about her serve. We see it all the time, and it is high error, but it is a gnarly serve. She doesn't know where it's going, that's one of the reasons she misses a lot. But it's very difficult to pass. It stresses teams and stresses passers.”
Nebraska built the lead up to as much as four, but Penn State rallied to tie it up at 24-all.
Freshman Jazz Sweet gave the Huskers set point with a kill, but Lee answered and then it was Penn State with a match point after a Nebraska attack error. However, Nebraska closed the set with three straight kills — one each by Holman, Sweet and Lauren Stivrins — to send the match to a fifth and final set.
Penn State gained an early advantage with a 6-4 lead in the race to 15, but Nebraska responded with a 5-0 run with Maloney at the service line. Penn State pulled within one, but a 3-0 Nebraska run gave the Huskers a cushion and they cruised from there.
On match point, Penn State sent the serve over the net and Foecke passed it to Hunter. She had Penn State middle blocker Tori Morrell lined up across the net from her, but Hunter dumped it to Gorrell’s right and Lee was unable to get a hand under it.
“I honestly was thinking I haven't really dumped in a while, and to try to keep them honest,” Hunter said. “The pass was tight and it led me there, and I finally got a jump that I won. Honestly, I was a little surprised. It was a great way to win the match.
“Yeah, it was awesome.”
The match lasted a tournament semifinal record two hours and 51 minutes. Nebraska improved to 8-3 against the Nittany Lions in the postseason, but it was Nebraska’s first win over them in the National Semifinals after Penn State won the first three match-ups.
“Penn State's a great team,” Hunter said. “To win four national championships in a row is just ridiculous. So we say they're the team to beat. But Nebraska might be the team to beat, too. So it's been really cool to get to play them so many times and have that great Big Ten rivalry and come out on top. Tonight was a great match, and it was just so much fun to play, whether we were losing or nearly up or up by a lot. So they're just always so fun to play, and it's a great match to watch.”
The Huskers will take on No. 2 Florida aat the Sprint Center on Saturday at 8 p.m. The Gators beat the Huskers in five in Gainesville back on Aug. 26 – without Hunter.
The rematch will be the final chapter in the masterful novel Kelly Hunter has authored at Nebraska. Win or lose, as Cook said, Hunter will go down as a legend.
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.