One week remains in the regular season for Big Ten teams and for the Huskers, that means two more matches at the Devaney Center before the NCAA Tournament selection show.
“Senior night will be a big night,” Coach John Cook said at his Monday press conference. “It’s a big match. Maryland’s had a really good season and I think that coach [Adam Hughes], everything that happened and everyone that left, he’s done a great job and I think he deserves to be considered for coach of the year. And of course, we’ve got three great seniors that will finish the Big Ten in Devaney. It’s going to be a big weekend and now we have to deal with Ohio State who just went five with Minnesota Saturday night. So another challenging week in the Big Ten.”
The Terrapins, who the Huskers play on Saturday night at 7 p.m., are 17-13 this season and 8-10 in Big Ten play after losing their coach, Steve Aird, to another Big Ten team in Indiana over the offseason. Maryland promoted associate head coach Adam Hughes to replace Aird and Hughes has kept the upward trajectory for the Maryland program going.
The Buckeyes, who come to Lincoln on Friday nigh for a 7 p.m. start, are 12-18 overall and 3-15 in league play this season but are coming off a 3-2 loss at Minnesota over the weekend.
The match against Maryland will be senior night for Nebraska’s three seniors, outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, libero Kenzie Maloney and setter Brooke Smith. Foecke and Maloney are co-captains while Smith has offered a different kind of leadership in her own right for an otherwise young Huskers team.
“I’m still trying to put all that in words because I’m having to write all these letters for her post-grad scholarships,” Cook said about what Foecke has meant to the program. “She wants to go to vet school. I’m still working on what she’s meant here but the highlights or the things that stand out are she switched positions from middle to outside; she trusted us on that. She’s a small-town farm girl from Iowa. She’s performed on the biggest stage in college volleyball twice. She’s led this team to three straight final fours; nobody else has done that. She’s a great student. She’s a great captain. There’s just so much to say about her and what she’s meant tot his program.”
Foecke has two nation titles, two NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player awards, three trips to the final four and two Big Ten titles under her belt and has had some of her best performances in Nebraska’s biggest matches over the years.
“She’s done that time and time again,” Cook said. “Yesterday I just watched our Penn State match and she just took over that match, she took over the Indiana match; she just has the ability to take over matches. I talked to our team about how she has a really deep inner confidence and belief in herself and I’m sure that’s the way she was raised. I’ve met her grandparents; they’re all tough. She wears cowboy boots to school sometimes. You can talk animals, you can talk volleyball; with her it’s pretty cool.”
Cook said a lot of his conversations with Foecke center around horses, and Foecke often visits his house to spend time with Cook’s Irish Wolfhounds. Foecke isn’t the most consistently vocal of leaders, but her sense of confidence is contagious, and it’s something she brought with her to Lincoln when she first arrived from West Point, Iowa.
“She told me her freshman year we were going to win the national championship when she got here,” Cook said. “She goes ‘Coach, we’re going to win this year.’ That’s a pretty cocky freshman. But like I said, she has a really deep belief in herself.”
Cook said Foecke should have an opportunity to continue her playing career at the professional level if she so desires, but her true dream is to become a veterinarian and she is in the process of applying for veterinary schools for after she graduates from Nebraska.
Foecke’s fellow captain, Maloney, is the heart of the second-best defense in the country and the best in the Big Ten.
“She’s another great senior,” Cook said. “We recruited her really hard when Dani [Busboom Kelly] was here as my assistant. We really wanted her because we thought she would be a game-changer libero, and she has been. She’s exceed my expectations for what I thought she could do. She’s a phenomenal player, she’s the No. 1 athlete on our performance index testing, she’s a great passer, great server, and she’s another one who’s performed great [in big moments]. I mean, I thought she was MVP of the Final Four last year. She’s just an awesome, awesome Nebraska volleyball player in every part of it.”
Maloney was a defensive specialist her first two years and had big shoes to fill once Justine Wong-Orantes graduated and Maloney slid over to libero. However, the Huskers haven’t seen any drop-off at the position over the last two years. Maloney’s elite athleticism allows her to make highlight-reel plays on a nightly basis.
“Probably in some areas, Kenzie’s exceeded Justine … I’ve seen times where they’d go for balls and Kenzie would go right by Justine” Cook said. “Kenzie’s so athletic that she’s made plays all around off the court that very few liberos in the country can make. Think about that: she’s No. 1 in our performance index testing. That’s over: Amber Rolfzen’s second, Briana Holman, Kadie Rolfzen, Kelly Hunter, those guys. She’s No. 1 on the board.”
The final senior is Brooke Smith, the reserve setter who left last season to play at Kansas State then returned to finish her career in Lincoln. Smith has only played in 22 sets all season, but Cook said she’s had a big impact on this team as well.
“If we could just mold a total team player that it’s about the team first and she’s going to give everything she has every day whether she plays or whether she doesn’t play, if we could create somebody like that, if we gave a job description, she would fit it perfectly,” Cook said. “She takes care of everybody, she gives everything, she’s upbeat, she’s positive, when she gets her chance she’s going for it. I can’t think of one day this year where Brooke’s down, she wasn’t into it, wasn’t giving everything that she had. She makes everybody around her better, she makes all those younger players feel great. Sydney Townsend was that for us last year. You’ve got to have kind of a team mom to be a great team, and Brooke is that person. That’s one of the reasons that when all this worked out that I thought it would be a really good fit to have her back because I don’t think Mikaela and Kenzie are those type of personalities. Brooke behind the scenes is doing an amazing job.”
Minnesota officially clinched the conference title over the weekend — the Golden Gophers have yet to drop a set in conference play — and the Huskers took more losses this season than they have since before the seniors arrived in Lincoln. Still, Nebraska is ranked No. 6 in the AVCA Coaches Poll and will have a chance to earn a quality seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can close out the season with two more wins.
“It has been up and down,” Cook said about the season. “I knew we were going to have one of the toughest stretches we’ve ever had. I didn’t know what to expect from that but I’m really pleased with how we’ve handled it, who we’ve grown from it, how we’ve stayed in the fight. To me, it’s a very similar deal with football, just started off tough and stayed with it day by day. I think we’re continuing to get better. I think we just beat three ranked teams in two weeks, so I’m encouraged. I told you guys it’s a work in progress, and it has been and we’re continuing to improve, which is hard to do this time of year.”
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.