Nebraska’s senior class closed out their regular season careers in style on Saturday night, sweeping Iowa at home to clinch a share of the Big Ten title.
The Huskers (26-4, 19-1) are the first team to win back-to-back Big Ten titles since Penn State in 2012 and 2013.
“Last year we went 18-2 and won the conference,” Coach John Cook said. “This year we went 19-1. To do this over 10 weeks, playing on the road, home matches, I think it may be the hardest thing to do and accomplish in college volleyball. If you’d have asked me in August if we’d be having this conversation tonight, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But I did start getting hope on the first day of practice … and I felt like this group had something special. They have really played great as a team. To do what they’ve done over 10 weeks and not have mess-ups and bad nights and continue to believe through the whole thing is an incredible accomplishment.”
Penn State, who Nebraska swept in the conference-opener, also completed Big Ten play at 19-1, giving them a share of the title along with the Huskers. The Big Ten does not use a tie-breaker to determine its champion.
Nebraska rolled over the Hawkeyes (18-15, 7-13) in the first two sets on Saturday then battled in the third to complete the sweep, winning 25-12, 25-15 and 25-23 in front of 8,276 fans on Senior Night.
Senior middle blocker Briana Holman (10 kills, eight blocks) and senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht (nine kills, 10 digs) both narrowly missed double-doubles while senior setter Kelly Hunter (30 assists, match-high 14 digs) did get one, but it was junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke who led the way with 15 kills on .400 hitting.
The Huskers hit .255 while holding the Hawkeyes to .067 and Nebraska out-blocked Iowa 10.5 to six.
Nebraska jumped out to a 4-0 lead to start the match before trading points with the Hawkeyes for a while. The Huskers pulled away with a 6-0 run midway through the set then cruised to a 13-point victory. Foecke came out on fire, converting eight of her nine swings in the set into kills as Nebraska hit .591 as a team.
After leading wire-to-wire in the first set, the second including three ties and a lead change in the first 15 points. Iowa took a 7-5 lead early but Nebraska responded with a 10-1 run to take a 15-8 lead into the media timeout. Iowa made a push with a 4-1 run to cut its deficit to four, but the Hawkeyes got no closer as a 5-0 run gave the Huskers set point and Holman finished it off with a powerful spike.
Iowa wasn’t ready to concede a sweep, however, as the third set featured 13 ties and seven lead changes. Nebraska used a 5-0 run early to break a 4-4 tie, but Iowa countered with a 6-2 spurt to tie it up again. The teams handed a narrow lead back and forth throughout the rest of the set until four straight kills by Taylor Louis gave the Hawkeyes a 23-21 advantage. The senior Albrecht stepped up on the next point to end Iowa’s run with a kill then Foecke put down back-to-back kills to set up match point, her first two kills of the set after notching 13 on 17 swings through the first two sets.
“Teams try to frustrate you with digging and their offense and obviously they were doing that to us in game three,” Foecke said. “You just have to keep doing that and swinging hard and looking for the block and I think we did a great job of that as a team tonight.”
Louis ended the match with an errant attack.
Albrecht put up respectable offensive numbers, but Cook said it was her defense and serving that made the difference on Saturday, and she was the one at the line serving the final three points.
“We ran the most points with her serving and she played phenomenal defense,” Cook said. “She was digging everything … Those were shots that she dug and she dug them where we transitioned for kills.”
Following the match, a Big Ten representative awarded the trophy to Cook and his team to a standing ovation from the Husker faithful. Back in the locker room, the team marked “Big Ten Championship” off its list of goals.
Now the Huskers will await their fate in the NCAA Tournament. The selection show on Sunday is set to begin at 8 p.m. on ESPNU and the Huskers have a strong case for a top-4 seed and hosting duties throughout the regionals.
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.