One year ago, John Cook challenged his team with the loftiest of goals right from the start. “Destination Omaha” became the team’s mantra, its rallying cry, its driving force throughout the season. Rather than shy away from the pressure of the Final Four being hosted in the Huskers’ back yard, Nebraska embraced it and rose to the occasion to bring the trophy back down I-80 to Lincoln.
Over the offseason, Cook continued to use that championship to motivate the team, but he also laid out the goals for 2016.
“This summer we had the theme ‘Chase the Feeling,’ so there still is a really good feeling and we’re going to continue to pursue that,” Cook said. “The things this season are going to be: can this team make history here at Nebraska Volleyball? This group has yet to win a Big Ten [title], no team has ever won back-to-back national championships. Those are kind of how this team will be judged and what we’re going for. I think they’ve got a great mindset on how they’re going to do that.”
According to Cook, this year’s other theme is “Dream Bigger.” Cook said they‘ve always encouraged their players to dream big, but after standing at the pinnacle of college volleyball, he is challenging them to reach even greater heights. Once again, he wants his team – ranked No. 1 in the preseason AVCA coaches poll – to embrace the pressure that comes with being the reigning national champions.
“I think with this group, that’s what’s going to inspire them and motivate them and has all summer,” Cook said. “I think we had to set that out there so we didn’t rest on, ‘OK, we won a national championship in Omaha and great, let’s go on cruise control.’ We have to set the bar higher for them to go after something and motivate them. That’s how we roll.”
Cook has set the bar so high because he brings back all but two starters from last year’s squad and adds a pair of all-conference talents in LSU transfer middle blocker Briana Holman, who redshirted in Lincoln last year, and Baylor graduate transfer outside hitter Andie Malloy to replace the departed Cecilia Hall and Kelsey Fien.
“I still get moments where I’m like ‘wow, it feels like just yesterday where we won the national championship,’ but it’s a new season, new year, new team,” senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes said. “We have a lot of returners, but essentially it’s a brand new team with the addition of the freshmen, Andie and Bri being able to play. We can have that in the back of our minds, but I think now we just have to focus. Columbus is in our mind and a Big Ten championship is in our mind. We just kind of need to start off with a new slate.”
Kadie and Amber Rolfzen have been Huskers for essentially eight years after committing to the program before their freshman year at Papillion-La Vista South High School. Now, they are back for one last ride in the Scarlet and Cream looking to build on their legacy. Cook shared his message for the twins heading into their senior season.
“You were good; you got to be great; now how are you going to become unstoppable,” Cook said. “It’s by working, it’s by mentally preparing, working on the mental side of it and working on the physical side of it.”
Kadie was named a First Team All-American and unanimous All-Big Ten pick last year after switching from the left side to the right. She averaged 3.30 kills and 2.82 digs per set and racked up 16 double-doubles.The 6-foot-3 hitter is on espnW’s list of 12 players to watch this year.
Meanwhile, Amber slid inside and became an All-Big Ten middle blocker after leading the conference in blocking. Her 1.58 blocks-per-set average was good for fourth in the country; toss in 2.30 kills per set and she also earned All-America Second Team honors.
Libero Justine Wong-Orantes rounds out the Huskers’ group of returning All-Americans after earning third-team honors as a junior. Wong-Orantes finished third in the conference at 4.55 digs per set and led one of the best defenses in the country, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention plaudits.
“Those guys have worked extremely hard,” Cook said about his senior class. “Basically what I told them was I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Kadie and Amber had so much expectations on them coming into the program and coming into college and with the early commitment and all that. They’ve really grown as young women and I think they have a great perspective now and to be able to manage and handle all that. Justine, we didn’t even recruit her until her senior year. She was a setter and we converted her to libero and right now she’s No. 3 on the depth chart for USA in liberos.
“I just have a lot of respect for what those guys have accomplished, what they’ve worked through and now that they’re seniors, I told them they’re going to drive this team. They’re driving the bus that this team is on. I think they’ve really earned the respect and the right to be leaders of this program.”
OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN
Fresh off a redshirt season, Cook surprised setter Kelly Hunter – high school teammate of the Rolfzen twins – on the team’s media day by naming her team captain prior to starting a single match as a Husker.
“For me, it was my first year playing and I stepped into a captain role, so obviously that’s a little tough no matter who you are,” Hunter said. “I just was myself out there and just talked to people the way I normally talk to people so I think my personality kind of came out and it all worked out.”
Hunter racked up 1,501 assists as a sophomore, third most in the country, and also recorded 10 double-doubles. She was tabbed as an All-America Honorable Mention by the AVCA and once again, Cook has named her team captain.
“My whole life, whatever team I’ve been on I’ve just been that person,” Hunter said. “That’s just in my personality. I’m more vocal and kind of more outgoing. It’s just natural for me.”
MIKAELA BEING MIKAELA
The reigning NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player, Mikaela Foecke, is back as well for her sophomore season. The 6-foot-3 left side hitter averaged 3.09 kills per set while hitting .277 for the Huskers, earning her a unanimous All-Big Ten Freshman Team nod as well as AVCA All-America Honorable Mention honors. Like Foecke, Kadie Rolfzen found success as a freshman, and the senior’s advice for her younger teammate was simple: stay confident.
“Just thinking back to my freshman to sophomore year, the main thing is you have to keep your confidence up,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “Being a freshman, a lot of people don’t know about you until the middle of the season when they figure out your tendencies. One thing I always say is develop an arsenal that’s even bigger than what you have now. Get those shots in that you didn’t have last year so people are always on their toes and they never know what’s going to happen. She’s just a great player and she goes at it 100 percent all the time. I just think Mikaela needs to be Mikaela and she’ll have a great season.”
Cook said the last year spent with the Nebraska strength and conditioning staff has helped Foecke grow more than anything else.
“Her big thing was a year in Husker Power,” Cook said. “I think when you look at her and see her, you can tell she’s changed. She’s gotten stronger, quicker and more explosive. Hopefully that’s going to allow her to go to another level as a player. She was a great hitter; she’s got to become a great blocker. She was a great server but she’s got to become a great defensive player if she’s going to be in the game and serve or play six rotations. Those are the things we challenged her with this spring.”
Foecke admitted she had never lifted weight before arriving on campus, but credited strength coach Brian Kmitta for helping her make significant gains.
“It’s all a process and a journey and each day you keep getting better and striving to work harder,” Foecke said. “This summer I’ve just been working really hard on passing and my blocking and just developing more shots. Last year … I was basically just a one-dimensional player.”
THE STRONG GET STRONGER
Last season, Holman – who earned First Team All-American honors with LSU in 2014 – had to watch from the sidelines as her new teammates marched to the championship. With her redshirt season in the rear-view mirror, the 6-foot-1 junior middle blocker is ready to step into the lineup.
“I think she’s hungry,” Cook said. “She worked really hard. But there’s probably going to be some nerves with her and she’s probably going to feel like she has to prove a lot. I think keeping it in perspective for her, because she will have a lot of expectations on her and I don’t want that to ruin her if she has a bad match. She’s improved and she still has a lot to improve on. We’ll get tested early; she’s going to go against USA-level middles. It will be a great test for her but I think she’s excited to play and she’s been waiting a long time.”
Amber Rolfzen, who spent all of last year across the net from Holman in practice, said the former Tiger is going to bring an incredible level of athleticism and physicality to the Huskers.
“Going against her in practice is kind of scary sometimes,” Amber Rolfzen said. “She’s obviously very physical. I would compare her to Cici [Hall] in that both of them can get really high. But Bri’s just overall a physical player, just very competitive. She actually shared with us the other day that she’s always in the moment and never cheers because she’s so focused. I think you’ll see kind of a brand new player … She’ll be a good fit and someone people need to watch out for in the Big Ten.”
Cook is going to have to rely on Holman and Rolfzen in the middle as freshman Lauren Stivrins, a 6-foot-4 true freshman ranked by PrepVolleyball.com as the No. 9 overall prospect in the 2016 class, is the only other middle on the roster.
“I think, especially towards the end of last year, we got really strong at the middle group as a whole and I think this year we’re right where we left off,” Amber Rolfzen said. “Obviously we’ll have Bri back ready to play and Lauren’s a great freshman; we’ve been in the gym a few times with her. I think middle blocker will be a good position to look out for on our team.”
The other high profile addition to this year’s squad is Andie Malloy, who graduated from Baylor with one year of eligibility remaining and chose to spend it at Nebraska. Malloy earned First Team All-Big 12 honors in each of the last two years. Malloy made a big impression with 16 kills and 11 digs in the team’s Red-White scrimmage and Cook said the team has welcomed her with open arms.
“The girls love her,” Cook said. “They say she fits in like she’s been here for a long time. She’s played with Kadie and Amber and Briana on teams. I think it was a very, very easy transition for her.”
Malloy will step into the void on the left side left by the graduation of Kelsey Fien. According to Foecke, Malloy’s experience and work ethic will be as valuable for the Huskers as her talent.
“Andie works really, really hard and she has a great attitude,” Foecke said. “I think on the court she’s going to be a great leader because this is her fifth year and so I think that she’s going to be a great stabilizer for us and someone who is going to calm us down and be very reliable.”
STRONG SUPPORTING CAST
Nebraska also returns a strong group of defensive specialists with experience in junior Sydney Townsend and sophomores Kenzie Maloney and Brooke Smith. At outside hitter, junior Annika Albrecht filled multiple roles last season and will do so again while sophomore Olivia Boender and redshirt freshman Tiani Reeves will look to add depth at the position this year. The final newcomer is freshman setter Hunter Atherton, the No. 41 overall prospect in the 2016 class per PrepVolleyball.com who enrolled early and played with the team during the spring.
TOPS IN THE BIG TEN
The Huskers were unanimously picked by the conference coaches to finish atop the Big Ten standings this year after finishing second last year. Last year’s champion, Minnesota, was picked second. The Gophers lost Big Ten Player of the Year Daly Santana but return a pair of talented twin middles in Hannah and Paige Tapp as well as last year’s freshman of the year in setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson. Wisconsin, who returns the Big ten’s best setter in Lauren Carlini, was picked third while perennial powerhouse Penn State was voted fourth and returns unanimous 2015 All-Big Ten pick middle blocker Haleigh Washington.
The Rolfzen twins and Wong-Orantes were joined on the preseason All-Big Ten team by Seliger Swenson and the Tapp twins from Minnesota, Wisconsin’s Carlini and Haleigh Nelson, Penn State’s Washington and Ali Frantti, Michigan’s Abby Cole, Michigan State’s Chloe Reinig, Jordyn Poulter of Illinois and Ohio State’s Taylor Sandbothe.
Seven Big Ten teams appear in the preseason AVCA coaches poll, the most of any conference. The Huskers were joined in the top 5 by Minnesota (No. 3) and Wisconsin (No. 4). Penn State starts at No. 9, Illinois is No. 14, Ohio State No. 15 and Purdue No. 20. Michigan State and Michigan were both among those receiving votes.
“The Big Ten is probably harder to win than the National Championship because it’s over 10 weeks,” Cook said. “With the new schools, we don’t play everyone back-to-back; the scheduling is very random and some teams are going to have easier draws than others. But it is the Big Ten, and to do it over 10 weeks and to come out on top might be tougher than winning a three-week tournament where you only have to play six matches.
“It is a very, very big challenge and something our players have a great idea of what it would take to win the Big Ten. It’s tough. You have to be good for 10 weeks and you can’t have many mistakes … There are going to be some big matches in the Big Ten and there’s no easy night; that’s the other thing I think our players really understand – there’s no easy night in this conference.”
Nebraska kicks off the 2016 season on Friday in Eugene, Oregon as part of the second annual VERT Challenge. Oregon is hosting this year’s Challenge, but the Huskers will not face the Ducks this year after downing them in five sets in event last year.
On Friday, Nebraska will take on preseason No. 10 Florida at 6 p.m. The Gators finished last season at 25-7 and were ranked No. 8 in the final AVCA poll. Florida is led by First Team All-American middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan who finished second in the country in blocks at 6-feet-4.
On Saturday, the Huskers will face off against No. 2 Texas, the only other team to receive first place votes (three of them) in the coaches poll. The Longhorns finished 30-3 last year and fell to the Huskers in the national championship. However, Texas will be without a significant piece in middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu who will sit out this season to focus on academics.
Cook will get a chance to see what his team is capable of right away.
“You might think, ‘well, why do you want to play those guys?’” Cook said. “Those are going to be top 5 teams, so win or lose coming out of that weekend, it doesn’t hurt your RPI and it’s a great test to start off and see where you’re at, because those are teams that are also thinking the same thing as us. Let’s go tee it up.”
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.