On Thursday afternoon, Coach John Cook and senior co-captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney took their turn at the NCAA dais at the Target Center in Minneapolis to field questions from the assembled media, both national and local, ahead of this week’s Final Four.
It’s a routine the Huskers should be well-accustomed to by now having done it in each of the previous three years as well.
“It's been a really challenging journey for us to get here,” Cook began. “I don't think any of you guys were penciling us in for the Final Four. But I got to give a lot of credit to these two, Mikaela and Kenzie, for their leadership. They've had to take over the biggest incoming group of new players we've ever had, eight; over half our team, are first-time Huskers. Everything is new to them.
“These guys have done an amazing job of leading this team, of creating a mindset that we're going to get better throughout the season. Then I think going through the Big Ten, we played seven top-10 teams in 10 matches, four in a row on the road. Really helped develop a toughness to this team, a belief that we could be a great team.
“I kept selling them on statistically how we were doing, but the team's got to believe. These guys got them to believe. Here we are in the Final Four. Excited to be here. It's our second trip to Minneapolis in less than a week.”
The Huskers made it through the Minneapolis Regional to get to the Final Four, sweeping both Kentucky and Oregon. The Ducks upset the host Golden Gophers — who won both meetings with Nebraska during the regular season — in the Sweet 16.
Cook was right; few outside Nebraska’s gym expected to see such a young Huskers team back in the Final Four. But inside the Devaney Center, Maloney said their confidence didn’t waver, even in the midst of losing five matches in the span of seven games in October.
“I really just think that despite the losses that we had in the middle of the season, this team always believed we could get here, no matter what everyone was saying,” Maloney said. “We just really came together. We told one another that we genuinely thought we had a chance to make it here, we just had to fix little things we had been talking about. We weren't seeing any changes on the court, finally it clicked with everyone. We've been getting better and better ever since then.”
The Huskers have won 12 straight matches, the last seven of which have been sweeps. Foecke still said the team hasn’t reached its ceiling, however.
“Obviously some people didn't see us here right now, but we've done it, we made it,” Foecke said. “I think at the beginning of the season to where we are now is leaps and bounds. We had so many young players, players that didn't know Nebraska volleyball, our system, our culture. We just really tried to instill that in them. It’s been a work in progress, but I think we're still headed up and in the right direction.”
Cook said this year’s team has made the biggest improvement over the course of the season of any team he’s had at Nebraska.
“I would say that this is one of the best serving teams we've had. In the beginning of the year, we were lollipopping it in. We have become a pretty strong passing team. If you told me at the beginning of the year we'd be the number one defensive team in the country, lead the Big Ten in blocking, I would have taken that bet in a heartbeat that we wouldn't.
These two [Foecke and Maloney], when you're around them, they bring a mindset and attitude of confidence and work ethic that inspires their teammates. So we get a lot done in practice. They work very hard in practice. They’re committed to the process of getting better every day. We're going to try to go get better in practice today. It stems from these two guys, their ability to stay with it when we took some hits, so… I mean, just a lot of areas we've improved. Just an overall team progress throughout the year. We've done things we've never done before statistically.”
Maloney offered her thoughts on where the team has most improved as well.
“I think just better connections on the court, communication-wise,” she said. “I think early on, because there were so many new players, we weren’t sure how to communicate with each other, how to play with each other, passing seams, stuff like that. Now looking at the end of the season, we're super comfortable, confident in our passing seams. We know what balls to play, what not to take. When we step on the court, it's more a mindset of confidence that we were kind of lacking towards the beginning of the season.”
That improved communication has played a big part in Nebraska leading the nation in opponent hitting percentage at .136. The combination of Nebraska’s block and back row have made teams truly earn every point why’ve scored this season.
“The critical factor is that coach always talks about defense wins championships,” Maloney said. “Obviously that statement has held true in the past. But for me as a back row player, it's really easy to play defense when our block is setting up perfectly every practice. We work so much on blocking every day. My job is really easy when we're setting up perfect blocks every time.
“It's really awesome to see back row players coordinating with front row players, really all six players coming together and being able to achieve that goal of being the number one blocking defense team is something really special.”
Though the players said they always believed in themselves, Cook had taken a measured approach with his public comments. He said numerous times that the team had the potential to make it back to the Final Four, but they certainly weren’t there at the time. That mindset started to change after the Huskers beat Penn State in five sets to snap their losing streak against top-10 teams.
“I started thinking after we beat Penn State, and I kept looking at the stats compared to last year, we were leading in several categories this year,” Cook said. “Then I thought, Okay, if [freshman setter] Nicklin [Hames] can continue to improve, we’ve got a shot. So we spent a lot of time on what we did all year, developing and improving Nicklin, getting her to play free, not worry about being a freshman at Nebraska, all that. I think it was a combination of those things.
Then, you know, we had some big wins down the stretch. Purdue was a big match. Of course, getting through the regional, which I thought was the toughest regional in the country. Everybody agrees with that.”
On the other side of the net on Thursday will be another Big Ten team in Illinois. However, the ties between the two teams go beyond just conference affiliation as former Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas is in his second season at the helm for the Illini and his wife, Jen, is on staff as a volunteer assistant just like she was at Nebraska.
“Chris and Jen as the package, they helped us win a national championship,” Cook said. “Chris was a little older, he did a great job for us. He was in the Big Ten for a couple years. I wanted to keep him for another year or two, but I've been in this long enough to know that a job like Illinois doesn't come open all the time, that if he had a shot to get it, he had to go. Obviously it was a good hire by the AD.”
Illinois is the last team to beat the Huskers this season as the two teams split the regular season series. Thursday will serve as the rubber match.
“They're playing really well,” Cook said. “It's going to take a great effort on our part. We know that. I mean, they're solid in all the areas. They remind me a lot of us. I think it's going to come down to which team can win the big points at the end of games, take the big swings, make a play, make the big plays that you guys will all write about.”
Stay tuned to Hail Varsity the rest of the week for plenty more volleyball as the action in Minneapolis gets under way.
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.