LINCOLN, Neb. – On the final night of the regular season, the No. 1 Huskers crossed an elusive goal off their white board list in the Devaney Center locker room.
That goal read “Win the Big Ten.”
With Saturday night’s four set victory (25-19, 25-17, 22-25, 25-21) over No. 18 Michigan coupled with No. 2 Minnesota’s five-set win against No. 3 Wisconsin, Nebraska earned the Big Ten regular season title outright with an 18-2 conference record.
“We have been preparing for this since January and every night we knew we had to go out and we had to compete,” senior outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen said. “You can lose one time in the Big Ten and not get Big Ten champions so we just knew we had to battle. I just think we did a really good job of that throughout the whole year from September until now. We didn’t have those matches where we were just ho-hum; we just played Nebraska volleyball for the majority of the Big Ten [schedule].”
This is Nebraska’s first conference title since 2011, the Huskers’ first year in the Big Ten. Coach John Cook gave credit to the leadership of the senior class – Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, Justine Wong-Orantes and Andie Malloy.
“I think probably having a great senior class [was the difference],” Cook said. “Those guys, and even Andie as a part of that, know the grind; you can’t get too up, you can’t get too down; you just have to keep grinding every night and do it over a long period of time. I think our preparation and our commitment – we made this goal back in January, because this group had never won the Big Ten.”
Nebraska finished the regular season 27-2, while the Wolverines fell to 22-10 and 11-9 in Big Ten play.
“I thought we played three really solid games against one of the hottest teams in the conference,” Cook said. “Game three we broke down a little bit. I just think the pressure of trying to win got to us a little bit. It’s been a long grind for 10 weeks to get to this point and you want it so bad, sometimes you just try a little bit too hard. I thought we really turned it around in game four.”
The Huskers got off to a bit of a slow start offensively in the first set on Saturday night, but they made up for it on defense with six first-set blocks. The second was a complete turnaround, as Nebraska hit a blistering .500 in the set and won by eight points.
“I think we just got in a rhythm,” sophomore outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said. “We started to serve a lot better in the second set and we got on a lot of runs.”
Nebraska came out flat in the third set, falling behind for good five points in. With Malloy, the senior graduate transfer from Baylor, struggling, Cook sent in Olivia Boender and the redshirt freshman gave the team a spark with a quick kill. The Huskers staved off six set points for Michigan before finally succumbing.
Nebraska took the lead three points into the final set and never looked back as the Huskers closed out the match and began the celebration.
Boender played the final set-and-a-half in Malloy’s place and finished with seven kills on .235 hitting.
“I’m always telling her be ready, be ready, be ready,” Cook said. “She came in and got us some huge kills, she got us a great touch on the block, passed a ball – we were struggling passing and we pulled her back and she nailed a pass. On Thanksgiving Day I read them a list of things I’m thankful for and one of the things we were really thankful for as coaches with Olivia is that Livvy has gained the trust of her team. Her team believes in her when she goes out there, and that’s why you see her play so free.”
Cook hasn’t lost faith in Malloy, however, who finished with six kills and six errors on her senior night.
“This is all new to her,” Cook said. “She’s never been in this situation. In some ways, she’s like a freshman. She did some good things tonight, she made a couple big plays, but she’ll learn from this. We’re just going to tell her every match we’re playing from here on out is Penn State.”
Foecke, the other left-side hitter, finished with a game-high 18 kills including some highlight-reel smashes and she hit .417 with six digs and two blocks.
“All I can remember is Justine yelling ‘swing away’ and I just knew that she had my back, so I think when you hear someone behind you yelling swing away it gives you complete confidence just to go up and rip the ball and I knew that if I did get blocked she’d be right there to cover me,” Foecke said.
Kadie Rolfzen finished with a double-double of 11 kills and 16 digs on her senior night, and got to share the court with her twin sister, Amber, who had a game-high seven blocks, as well as their parents.
“I just want to play with [Amber] and I want to see her do well and I just want her to be happy,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “My parents, obviously we live 40 minutes away so I see them a lot, but it was just different actually walking out there. I’m sure my dad teared up; I don’t know, probably. It was just special to go out there. I feel like I’ve been here forever, but at the same time I feel like I just got here. It was just special to be able to go out there after all the support that they’ve given us the last four years that they were there with us tonight.”
Rolfzen also became the seventh Husker to surpass 1,500 career kills in the match. Wong-Orantes finished with 17 digs, pushing her over 1,800 for her career. Junior setter Kelly Hunter had a double-double with 49 assists and 12 digs, while junior middle blocker Briana Holman added 11 kills and five blocks.
“I just told them this has been one of the toughest grinds for a conference championship,” Cook said. “I don’t know how much they really appreciate it or understand it, but I really want them to celebrate this as a great effort by them in the toughest conference I’ve ever seen.”
The Huskers will have Saturday night and Sunday to celebrate, but their second major goal begins Sunday night as the NCAA Tournament selection show will begin at 8 p.m.
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.