MINNEAPOLIS — After taking down Illinois in five sets on Thursday night to make it back to the national championship game, Nebraska’s senior co-captains Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke took some time to enjoy themselves and celebrate their accomplishment. Now, however, it’s time to focus on the task at hand.
“Maybe not until this morning,” Maloney said about turning their focus to Stanford who awaits them in the final on Saturday. “We're roommates, we were both really excited. It was hard for us to get to sleep. Obviously it was a great win, but now we’ve got to kind of put that behind us and just focus on taking care of business tomorrow night.”
This year’s final four included two teams with several trophies in their cases facing two teams searching for their first title. Championship tradition won out on Thursday and Nebraska will be looking to even the title count with Stanford on Saturday night. Stanford has seven titles under its belt, Nebraska six.
“I just know I think both programs have high expectations,” Coach John Cook said. “When players go to those schools, they know what they're in for. So there's tradition at both those schools. Probably the cultures are a lot different from Stanford and Nebraska. I know parking and going out to eat is a lot cheaper in Lincoln than in Palo Alto. But yeah, I mean, Stanford is one of the premier programs in volleyball.”
The top-seeded and top-ranked Cardinal are 33-1 this season after their Final Four win on Thursday night, sweeping BYU to avenge their only loss of the season. Offensively, Stanford is third in the country in hitting percentage and first in kills. Defensively, the Cardinal are first in the nation in blocking with four different players averaging better than 1.1 per set led by 6-foot-2 middle blocker Tami Alade who is leading the country in blocking at 1.87 per set.
Stanford blocked BYU 17 times in three sets with Alade having a hand in 14 of them on Thursday night, but Nebraska is hoping to use that big block to its advantage.
“I know in practice we work a lot on tooling the block, hitting high lines,” Maloney said. “It’s something we're really comfortable with. Hopefully it will be an advantage for us to have a big block up there tomorrow.”
With 6-foot-6 hitters in two-time AVCA National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris and athletes like Alade and Courtney Bowen in the middle, shutting down Stanford completely is an ambitious task, and Nebraska knows it. The point-by-point mentality Cook is constantly stressing with his team will be key.
“I think the biggest thing with that is play point by point,” Foecke said. “Obviously you can't win every single point. Brushing off the last one, moving forward as quickly as you can.”
Maloney said the Huskers have been well conditioned to play they way by going through the grind that is the Big Ten.
“Going through Big Ten season really prepares us for that,” Maloney said. “Every team that we play in the Big Ten gets big kills and makes blocks against us. We're kind of used to that. Just bouncing back, not really focusing on those kills that they get, focusing on our side.”
On Thursday, the Huskers got off to a slow start but the team’s freshmen really came through in their first experience at the Final Four.
“I think coming out, everybody had a lot of nerves, not just freshmen, everyone involved,” Maloney said. “But, yeah, I thought Nicklin [Hames] and Megan [Miller] really stepped up when we needed them to. Megan had a great game, digging everything. Nicklin ran the show. She was just playing her game, kind of took over the match in sets three through five. I'm just really proud of them.”
The Huskers are going to need the young supporting cast to step up again on Saturday if they hope to end their season with a win.
“We can't try to think that Mikaela can carry us against these teams,” Cook said. “We always promote and try to get our team to understand that everybody contributes, everybody has a chance to help our team win.
“We typically, after matches, are giving positive reinforcement to Megan Miller or Capri [Davis], what difference they made. We've been building that all year. They feel like maybe it's one kill, one dig, one ace, but that could be the difference in a match. Last night, if you look at total points, it was a two-point difference. That's the way it is this time of year. Every point really matters. You got to fight for every point. Any time those guys can make a contribution or find a way to get us a point, it's a huge deal.”
That being said, Stanford’s attention is going to be focused first and foremost on Foecke, who has played her best in the biggest stage throughout her career.
“We need to block and defend, which isn't going to be easy,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “She's going to get some points, she's going to score. I think we need to do our best to make the offense simple, so maybe we can get a better block set up, serve aggressively, hopefully get them off in that a little bit so we can set up our block, do the best we can.”
Cook wrapped up his Thursday press conference by reflecting back on the journey this season has been, replacing the senior from last year’s team and incorporating all the newcomers including a handful of true freshmen.
“Well, last year was a magical year for us,” Cook said. “I thought, it doesn't get much better than this. I think this year has gone up another notch. We've had so many new players, playing so many young players. [New assistant] Jaylen [Reyes] is a very young coach. It's really his first time in women's volleyball.
“To be the number one defensive team in the country, with a 5-9 setter — it's not [Illinois senior Jordyn] Poulter up there blocking; Poulter is a great blocker, for example. I'm very proud of what this team's done.
“I've really, really enjoyed the process because of Mikaela and Kenzie … The work we did to develop those two as leaders, the work we did to bring everybody in, build this team, get to where we're playing for a national championship, it’s pretty special.
“It's been a really cool process. You can hear when these guys talk about how close they are, how connected they are. Again, that is not just something that just happens. That is a lot of work. It's pretty cool to be around student-athletes when they invest in that, they believe in it, they trust the process, they work at it.
“We had several times to implode the ship. I mean, we lost three in a row. All these guys from Nebraska, all I'm reading about, we never lost three in a row, lost five out of seven. These guys didn't even flinch.
“It's pretty rewarding. I think that's what you want as a coach. You want to see your team get better, go through the process, peak at the end. I was looking at I think Mikaela and Kenzie's record now in the month of November and December — remember this is November in the Big Ten for four years — counting those matches, I think they're 52-2. We're pretty prideful about that. It’s pretty cool.”
The Huskers will try to add one more to the win column for their seniors on Saturday night. First serve against Stanford on ESPN2 is set for 8 p.m. CST.
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.