Nebraska is a volleyball state.
There’s no question about that after Thursday’s match between No. 7 Nebraska (5-1) and No. 14 Creighton’s (4-3), a five-set thriller in front of an NCAA volleyball regular season record crowd of 14,022 at CHI Health Center Omaha.
The Huskers battled back from a 0-2 hole to take down their in-state rivals 3-2 (22-25, 19-25, 25-18, 25-22, 15-10) behind an incredible performance by senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke.
“I told you guys this was going to be a great match; I even used the word epic earlier in the week,” Coach John Cook said. “Creighton’s a really good team and they thoroughly outplayed us in the first two games. Then I thought our team settled down a little bit and we started playing more like Nebraska volleyball. The difference is we started slowing down [Creighton senior outside hitters Jaali] Winters and Taryn [Kloth] and we started slowing down [middle blocker Megan] Ballenger too. Our defense finally started picking up in game three and allowed us to get some momentum and get going and of course, it was a great match all the way down. We made some big plays in game five when we needed them.”
Foecke finished with a career-high 25 kills on .351 hitting with 13 digs, five blocks and four aces. In four career matches at CHI Health Center Omaha (previously named CenturyLink Center Omaha), Foecke has averaged 4.6 kills on .369 hitting. The previous three matches came in 2015 when Nebraska swept Creighton in the regular season then went on to beat Kansas and Texas in the Final Four, where Foecke was named Most Outstanding Player in front of an NCAA record crowd of 17,561.
“Nebraska fans never disappoint, and I think CenturyLink is something special,” Foecke said. “I think there was a record crowd there in 2015, so to have another record crowd tonight is astonishing, but it’s also no surprising.”
“She’s a stud,” Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said about Foecke. “Her and Taryn’s stats are almost identical. Foecke, we knew the ball was going to her and we still had trouble stopping her. We tried to put all hands on deck to slow her down and kudos to her; she’s one of the best outsides in the country.”
Kloth finished with a match-high 26 kills on .400 hitting but 15 of those came on 25 attempts in the first two sets. Winters added 18 kills and 18 digs but the Huskers held her to .169 hitting.
Freshman opposite hitter Jaela Zimmerman, a Lincoln native and Malcolm High School alumna, posted a career-high 10 kills on .400 hitting with two blocks.
“It was good to see Jaela have a great night in front of an atmosphere,” Booth said. “You never know how a freshman’s going to respond and this is her best career match, not only statistically but I think passing the eye test, the things that she did. Jaela’s a great player. I think she’s going to continue to improve.”
Freshman setter Nicklin Hames finished with 56 assists and 11 digs while senior libero Kenzie Maloney posted a match-high 25 digs. Sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet chipped in 12 kills on .323 hitting. Nebraska hit .258 for the match and served up 10 aces to 10 errors.
After a strong finish against Santa Clara in the Ameritas Players Challenge, Cook gave freshman Capri Davis the nod at the second outside hitter spot and she came out on fire, putting down her first three swings for kills. Cook told Davis it was her turn right before the match.
“We talk about trusting our training all the time and I know my teammates had confidence in me, so it was really just trusting in them and just knowing that I was training for this all week,” Davis said. “It was really easy whenever you think about it in that perspective.”
A 4-0 run by Nebraska gave the Huskers a 13-9 lead early, drawing a timeout from Creighton. Whatever Booth said to her team in the huddle seemed to work as Creighton fought back to take a lead at 17-16 with a 3-0 run. Nebraska tied it on a kill by Foecke but the Jays pulled ahead at 20-18 before the Huskers tied it again at 20-all. Creighton answered with two straight to draw a timeout from Cook.
Nebraska pulled within one twice but couldn’t get over the hump as a service error gave the Jays set point and Kloth ended it by tooling the block clear across the court for a kill.
Creighton got off to a fast start in the third set, using a 3-0 run to pull ahead 7-4. Nebraska closed to within one but the Jays blew the game open with a 7-0 run and cruised to victory from there as Kloth continued to wreak havoc for the Jays. Creighton hit a blistering .457 in the set.
Nebraska refused to go down without a fight, however, opening the third with a 6-1 run and the Jays never got closer than three the rest of the way. Nebraska stretched its lead out to eight at 17-9 before a 3-0 run by Creighton. After trading points, Nebraska got its advantage back up to eight with a 3-0 run of its own and the Huskers finished off the set for a seven-point win to extend the match.
Foecke came alive in the third with six kills and three blocks as the Huskers held Creighton to .023 in the set.
“I think we went to the locker room and just kind of regrouped,” Foecke said. “We talked a lot about the little things that we can control like communication, eye contact, effort and energy, and those were some things that were lacking in the first two sets. We just tried to pick those up and I think as we picked those up our game improved as well.”
Nebraska kept it rolling into the fourth set with a 5-0 run early to take an 8-3 lead. Creighton cut its deficit to two at 11-9 but Nebraska countered with a 5-1 run to take a 16-10 lead. Creighton returned fire with a 4-1 run, drawing a timeout from Nebraska, and the Huskers came out of the break with a 3-0 run of its own to push it back to 20-14.
Creighton battled back into it with a 6-2 run but a pair of kills by Foecke and one by Davis finished it off at 25-22, setting up a fifth set. Nebraska out-hit Creighton .265 to .162 and held Kloth to three kills and two errors on 14 swings in the fourth set.
Nebraska took the first two points of the final frame before both sides settled into a back-and-forth tussle. It looked like Creighton was about to tie it up with a strong serve that a Husker misplayed but Hames chased the errant pass down, running into the press table while bump-setting the ball back into play and Foecke and Lauren Stivrins teamed up to block Ballenger to get the point and put Nebraska up 7-5.
“Great players and great teams make big plays in game five, and that’s an out-of-system play that we work on, trying to win those,” Cook said. “She’s really good at all that stuff; she’s a baller.”
Foecke pounded her career-high 23rd kill to give Nebraska an 8-5 lead as the teams changed sides then teamed up with freshman Callie Schwarzenbach to block another Creighton attack to make it 9-5 before the Jays got on a run to pull within one at 10-9.
Foecke followed that play up with a kill and two aces to make it 13-9. Creighton got a kill from Kloth but Sweet answered for Nebraska to set up match-point and Maloney ended it with an ace. Foecke had five kills, two aces and two blocks in the fifth set.
After putting up 16 kills in her first four matches, Davis finished with 18 kills on 49 swings with five digs. It was the first time all season she’s played from start to finish.
“What I have told Capri and Sam [Slaughter] is as long as you’re aggressive, you’re going to stay in,” Cook said. “I thought Capri made a couple mistakes tonight but she was still aggressive and getting after it. When they get the look that they’re afraid, that’s when they’re coming out. She had the look and was staying after it and she rewarded and helped her team.”
Nebraska will get a few days off before returning to the Devaney Center to host Iowa State on Sunday afternoon. The Cyclones (5-2) were just outside the top 25 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll and will first participate in Creighton’s Bluejay Invitational, taking on the Jays on Friday and Wichita State on Saturday. First serve between the Huskers and Cyclones is set for 1 p.m. on ESPNU.
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.