LINCOLN, Neb. — John Cook and the top-seeded Huskers have spent little time thinking back to their run to the national championship last season since being named the top overall seed in this year’s tournament. However, they put that on hold for a moment to reflect back on their accomplishment Friday night as the NCAA played a highlight video commemorating last year’s tournament on the video screen prior to the Huskers’ first-round match against New Hampshire.
“It’s cool to see just because they have those videos every year and then this year we were kind of like a feature of the video, so it’s cool too look up there and see all of our celebrations,” junior setter and team captain Kelly Hunter said. “Then for me, I said when we went in the huddle, ‘we just saw a great example of what our play should look like, how fun it was, and we should remember that feeling from last year. I think that too pumped up our crowd.”
It appears to have pumped up the Huskers too as they steam-rolled the Wildcats in the first set and battled through the second and third sets to sweep New Hampshire 25-9, 25-23, 25-18 in front of a packed house of 8,014.
“I thought we came out and played a really good first game,” Cook said. “New Hampshire was probably a little overwhelmed with the crowd and playing against us, and then they played really well. Typically sometimes when you win the first game really easily, there’s a natural letdown and then it was hard for us to get it back. But we did some good things, found a way to win game two and then it felt like we were controlling game three. They do some creative things. They’re smart players. Even though they’re not big, they were hitting off our hands and did a nice job. We’re not used to playing teams like that and so they do a really good job. They’re really well coached. A good first-round match. As I told the team, we’re one game better than we were last year at this time.”
Nebraska dominated the first set, leading wire to wire and out-hitting the Wildcats .485 to .062. Outside hitters Kadie Rolfzen and Mikaela Foecke combined for nine kills on 16 attacks, while New Hampshire could only muster up seven kills on 32 attempts in the first set.
The tide shifted in the second set, however, as the Wildcats seemed to settle in and started finding ways to attack the Nebraska defense. The frame featured 17 ties and five lead changes and neither side led by more than two points at any time. However, with the Huskers leading 24-23, Foecke stepped up and hit one off a New Hampshire blocker for her second game-winning kill in as many sets,
The Huskers did not record a single block in the second.
“I think they hit low to the tape and we sealed high, and they were able to tool us a lot,” Foecke said. “And then we were late and I personally was late a lot.”
However, the Huskers figured out the Wildcats and recorded four blocks in the third as they gradually stretched out their lead as the set went on to finish off the sweep.
“I was just really proud of my team tonight,” New Hampshire coach Jill Hirschinger said. “I thought they really fought. We came out in the first game I think a little bit intimidated by the crowd. This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever played in front of. I thought once we settled down we really started getting competitive. Almost had that second game, which is great, and I thought we really fought and were competitive in the third. So I’m really proud of how they came in and performed.”
The Huskers out-hit the Wildcats .352 to .175 and out-dug them 51-39.
Foecke recorded a game-high 13 kills on .407 hitting while Kadie Rolfzen added 12 kills on .360 hitting with eight digs. Hunter had 40 assists, eight digs and three kills on four swings. Libero Justine Wong-Orantes posted a match-high 14 digs and also added six assists.
In their first tournament match as Huskers, Briana Holman and Andie Malloy combined for 16 kills on 31 swings.
“I thought they did great,: Cook said about his newcomers. “I don’t know if Andie’s ever played in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know that she has. She might have her first year but she didn’t play in it. Of course, Bri was in it two years ago. I think they got to the first, maybe the second round. I don’t care who you are. When the NCAA happens, it’s still a different feel than just grinding in the Big Ten for example or a nonconference match. There’s a definite heightened awareness.”
According to Hirschinger, New Hampshire honored one of Nebraska’s mascots by naming one of their defenses after him.
“We always tweak our defense depending on who we’re going to play, and the team ended up calling it Lil’ Red because we love Lil’ Red, watching it,” Hirschinger said.
Now the Huskers have to quickly move on as the next match is Saturday night. TCU knocked out Wichita State in four sets prior to Nebraska’s match, setting up a showdown between the Huskers and Horned Frogs at 7 p.m. The Huskers watched some of TCU’s first round match and got the chance to do a little in-person scouting.
“One thing I noticed is they’re all so tall” Hunter said. “Even their libero is so tall so that will be something that we’re a little bit more used to. Mostly, we just know they’re going to be athletic and they’re going to come out and give their best shot so I think for us, usually, our focus is on our side and then we do our scouting … so it was just fun to check out the competition a little bit and just watch some of the volleyball.”
Cook offered his own evaluation of the Horned Frogs.
“They run a 6-2, so they’re always going to have three hitters,” Cook said. “They’ve got a couple big, physical middles as Kelly mentioned. And their setters throw it around a lot so they’re not going to make the easy set, they might make the difficult set. Sometimes it will be hard to get two blockers up on that. That’s why our floor defense will have to be really good tomorrow night. They’re used to playing good teams.”
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.