There are only 16 teams still standing in college volleyball. This time of year, most teams are simply trying to maintain their current level of play.
Not the Huskers, though. If you had walked into Nebraska’s gym on Tuesday, you would have seen a team working hard trying to get better.
“We had four really tough drills we did and they couldn’t get out of it until they got it done,” Coach John Cook said. “We put as much heat on them as we could, made it as tough on them as we could and they have to figure out a way to be successful. It’s not coming in here and kicking the ball around and tell them how great they are. We got after it, then at the end I had those other guys, they had to dig 25 balls in the box to get out today. So they’re pushing.”
“This team loves to train, they love to be in the gym and they love to be pushed,” Cook continued.
Nebraska’s senior co-captains, Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, have been there and done that — three times now. Foecke in particular seems to raise her level of play on the biggest stages — she has two NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Players awards to her name — but the Huskers can’t just rely on Foecke to carry them.
“We have to be a great team to win at this point,” Cook said. “You can’t rely on one player; it has to be a great team effort. We have to have everybody firing on all cylinders. Those guys understand that. If they’re going to put two blockers on Mikaela, then somebody else has to step up. The one area where it’s really important for her and Kenzie is to be our emotional leaders, lead us through when we get there because it’s different. You’ve got all these obligations you have to do. We’re playing at 1 o’clock. Those guys are going to be setting the tone with the team on how to prepare and make all the adjustments because it’s out of our normal routine.”
The Huskers have four sophomores who have NCAA Tournament experience, even if one of them — Texas transfer Lexi Sun — gained that experience on another team. The seniors and sophomores have been charged with preparing the team’s freshmen for what they’re going to face in the Sweet 16, and perhaps beyond.
“I definitely think having a year in the tournament and already going through it is something thats super helpful,” Sun said. “I think that you kind of understand what it’s all about and know that you can’t take any plays off. I feel like for all the freshmen on this team we’re just trying to tell them to stick to their training and kind of push away their nerves a little bit because that’s not going to help them at all. That’s just something that I learned from last year for sure.”
Sun is one of the players that will have to take advantage of the attention Foecke might draw. The sophomore left side is only hitting .200 this season after a rough stretch during the middle of the year, but over the past nine she has averaged 3.27 kills on .289 hitting.
“Coach is really big on being confident and aggressive, so I think that for sure,” Sun said. “Just working on getting up and being confident up there and taking big swings is super big for us.”
Another player that needs to step up is sophomore opposite Jazz Sweet, who also had her struggles during the season after a hot start. Sweet is hitting .206 but totaled 12 kills and just two errors on 28 swings in Nebraska’s first and second-round sweeps in the NCAA Tournament last weekend. Sweet said the coaches have been working to tweak a few things in her game to help her break out of the slump.
“First we just started off kind of working on my arm swing, getting on top of the ball a little bit faster, speeding up my arm swing so I can get on it a little bit quicker, get a little more force behind it,” Sweet said. “And on top of that we also did quickening up my footwork and getting my transitions a little bit quicker, getting my feet to the ball so I can be more straight up and down and really get to any set anywhere it was so that I can really be versatile from anywhere the ball was and get a kill for our team.”
Sweet said making those changes hasn’t been easy, but she stuck with it and is starting to see results.
“It takes a lot of focus, like a lot of practice,” Sweet said. “I work on it before practice every single day and then we’re working constantly on it in practice, but I’m slowly seeing different turnovers for the games and seeing a lot of different shots now that I wasn’t seeing before … The hard work pays off so that’s really what I wanted to do was just build because this tournament gets tough and it gets tough fast. Anything to put me at an advantage is really what I’m trying to do right now.”
Next up for the Huskers is a familiar foe, 10th-ranked and 10th-seeded Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Minneapolis. The Huskers beat the Wildcats in four sets in the Elite Eight last season.
Win that one and the Huskers will likely face another top-10 team, the regional host Golden Gophers of Minnesota, the second-ranked and second-seeded team in the country.
The Huskers are no stranger to taking on top-10 opponents in the same weekend, however. They’ve done it more than once with a stretch of 10 games during the middle of the season that included seven top-10 opponents. The Huskers won the first and last of those games but dropped five straight in between them. Cook said he learned a few things about his team during that stretch.
“That they’re really resilient, they stayed with the process, they didn’t get down,” Cook said. “They were upset, they were tired of losing, but they bought into everything we were talking about and it’s a process we’re going through. Mikaela and Kenzie know we have young players and they also know that was a really, really tough stretch. What did we play, four top-10 teams on the road? I’m not sure we’ve ever done that before but they stayed with the process and they bought into what we were talking about.”
Nebraska’s grueling Big Ten schedule prepared the Huskers for the NCAA Tournament as well as any team int he country. Even the team’s freshmen are battle-tested at this stage of the season.
“I looked at Kentucky: since they played Texas in September, they’ve literally played two ranked teams — Missouri and Florida,” Cook said. “We played seven top-10 teams in 10 matches. So I think that gives us an advantage going in, that we understand the level we’re going to have to play at and how hard it’s going to be and how important each point is. I’m hoping that gives us an edge. I want the Big Ten to do really well; we have six teams in the Sweet 16, so I think that’s a big compliment to our program. I think our players are used to really tough matches.”
The Wildcats brought back a number of key players from last season’s team and are 26-4 after sweeping Purdue in the second round of the Tournament. Outside hitter Leah Edmond put up 20 kills and 11 digs in their meeting in last year’s postseason, Avery Skinner had 10 kills and middle blocker Brooke Morgan had seven kills and four blocks. All three are back this year as are the team’s libero, McKenzie Watson, and setter, Madison Lilley.
“Their outside hitters are similar to Minnesota’s,” Cook said. “Madison Lilley’s a really good setter, so that’s Illinois, that’s Minnesota, that’s Wisconsin. They’re a really good team, they have great stats and they don’t make a lot of errors. That’s why they’re SEC champs.”
The Huskers and Wildcats are set for an afternoon match as the first serve is set for 1 p.m. on Friday on ESPNU. On the other side of the bracket, the Golden Gophers will take on Oregon at 3:30 p.m.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.