MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — In Thursday’s semifinal win over Illinois, a fifth-set challenge by John Cook gave a key point to Nebraska. On Saturday, a late challenge went the other way and helped Stanford clinch a five-set win over the Huskers in the national championship game.
The Cardinal beat Nebraska 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,113 at the Target Center in Minneapolis to complete a 34-1 campaign and end Nebraska’s season at 29-7.
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke capped a legendary career with a dominant performance, finishing with a match- and career-high 27 kills and 11 digs. Fellow senior Kenzie Maloney added a team-high 17 digs from her libero spot. Together, the duo completed their careers 21-2 in the NCAA Tournament with four Final Four appearances, two national titles and one runner-up finish.
“I'm so grateful every day,” Cook said. “But we work really hard. I've learned how to surround our program with great people, to allow these student-athletes to become the best that they can become. Kenzie, Mikaela, and Brooke [Smith] have created a culture of expectation and winning. We're going to be chasing it now because it's a really high standard that they've set, success level, their legacy.”
Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins exploded for a career-high 19 digs on .615 hitting plus five blocks and sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet added 10 kills (her first double-digit kills performance since Oct. 24) and tied her career-high with five blocks. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames recorded a career- and match-high 62 assists and 12 digs. Freshmen defensive specialist Megan Miller added 12 digs off the bench.
The Huskers out-hit Stanford .272 to .250 and notched nine more kills, but it wasn’t quite enough. Stanford out-blocked Nebraska 11.5 to 9.0 and served up nine aces to Nebraska’s two. Of the 209 rallies played on Saturday night, the Cardinal won 105, the Huskers 104.
“I think it's a great night for volleyball, two of the most storied programs in college volleyball went at it, put on a great match,” Cook said. “What was the crowd, 18,000? It was an exciting match. It had drama. It went back and forth. You know, if you look at the stats here, they had one more sideout than we did. That's how close it was.
“Congratulations to Stanford. They played really well in that fifth game. They just seemed like they served really tough. Once they got out to a little lead, they made a nice comeback. I'm very proud of our team, how hard they fought. We did some really good things tonight, competed really well. Not many people gave us a chance. Get to the fifth game, anything can happen. Great effort by our team tonight, as well.”
Foecke and Stivrins were named to the all-tournament team along with Illinois’ Jacqueline Quade and Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz and Audriana Fitzmorris. Plummer, the 2017 and 2018 National Player of the Year, shared Most Outstanding Player honors with Hentz.
Plummer led the Cardinal with 19 kills and added 10 digs, though the Huskers held her to .153 hitting with 10 attack errors. Hentz finished with a match-high 32 digs. Holly Campbell had 15 kills on .483 hitting and Fitzmorris added 14 kills and five blocks.
Stanford scored the first two points including an ace on its first serve, but Nebraska settled in and ripped off four straight points to take the lead. A 3-0 Nebraska run expanded the lead to 9-4 and drew an early timeout from Stanford coach Kevin Hambly.
The Huskers notched five kills on their first nine swings while holding Stanford to two kills and two errors.
The Cardinal got going after the timeout, however, recording kills on four of their next eight swings to pull within two at 11-9. After a Nebraska timeout, Stanford managed to pull within one but Nebraska pushed the lead back to four a couple of times.
A 4-0 run served by Kate Formico gave the Cardinal their first lead since the opening few rallies at 19-18, leading to Nebraska’s second timeout. Freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach tied it up after the break but a 4-1 run gave the Cardinal a 23-20 lead. The sides traded points to give Stanford set point at 24-21, but Sweet and Stivrins stuffed Plummer, Stanford hit wide and Miller’s serve led to an overpass kill by Stivrins to tie it at 24-all.
Back and forth the two teams went with two more ties before Stanford managed to put the Huskers away. Sun hit wide to give Stanford set point again then hit into the block to seal it. Sun had four errors and no kills in the first set.
Nebraska hit .302 to Stanford’s .268 and got seven kills on .429 hitting from Foecke. Stivrins added five kills on six swings and the Huskers held Plummer to .111 hitting with four errors. However, Stanford served five aces to Nebraska’s one.
The two teams went back and forth early in the second set with neither side able to create any separation. After 10 ties, Nebraska pulled ahead for good with a 5-1 run capped by back-to-back Foecke kills that made it 20-16.
Stanford pulled within two at 21-19 but Nebraska went back to Foecke and she delivered again with two more kills to make it 23-19 and draw Stanford’s second timeout of the set. Stanford countered with two straight but Foecke delivered set point with her eighth kill. Stanford saved one set point but Stivrins ended it with her 10th kill on a Stanford net violation.
Stanford held a .353 to .326 edge in hitting percentage in the second set but Nebraska was plus-four in kills.
Stanford steam-rolled Nebraska in the third set as the Cardinal’s big block took over with five in the frame. Stanford jumped out to a 7-2 lead then blew the game wide open with a 7-0 run. After Nebraska got one back the Cardinal ripped off three more to push the lead to 11 at 20-9.
Nebraska cut its deficit to seven a couple of times but couldn’t dig itself out of the hole as Stanford took the third 25-16. Nebraska hit .027 to Stanford’s .238.
Nebraska bounced back in a big way in the fourth. Sweet started things off with back-to-back kills, sparking a 5-0 run open the set. Stanford ended the run but Nebraska started a new one right away, scoring the next four points to draw Stanford’s second timeout with a 9-1 lead.
Stanford cut into the lead with a 3-0 run that made it 13-7 Nebraska. The Cardinal pulled within five on an ace by Gray but the Huskers responded with three straight kills, two by Sweet, to make it 17-9. After two straight Nebraska attack errors, the Huskers put together a 4-0 run to take a 21-11 lead and they cruised from there.
Foecke put down her 23rd kill of the match on set-point, moving her past Sarah Pavan to the top of Nebraska’s career postseason kills list.
“Our serve, block and defense took over,” Cook said about the turnaround form set two to set three. “They hit .121. I just thought we got dialed in. We made a couple adjustments. They started getting touches, digs and conversions.”
The Huskers hit .412 in the fourth, doubling up the Cardinal in kills 18 to nine.
Nebraska took the first two points in the fifth set, but a 4-0 Stanford run put the Cardinal up 5-3. After a timeout, Nebraska went to its superstar and Foecke put down a kill to end the Stanford run and start a 3-1 stretch that tied it up at 6-all.
The Huskers tied it again at 7-7 and 9-9 but couldn’t quite get over the hump. Stanford scored two straight to pull ahead 11-9 before freshman Capri Davis got one back with a kill. Campbell put the Cardinal back up 12-10 and drew Nebraska’s last timeout, then Gray caught the defense off-guard with a setter dump that made it 13-10.
Sidney Wilson appeared to send her serve wide, but Hambly’s challenge proved successul and flipped the score from 13-11 to 14-10.
The Huskers didn’t call it a night just yet, saving two set points and forcing one last timeout by the Cardinal, but Meghan McClure ended it on the following point, sealing Stanford’s eighth national championship.
Though the final match of her career didn’t go the way she wanted it to, Foecke said she still considered this season a success.
“Looking at the season overall, I made bonds with girls that at the beginning of the season I definitely wouldn't have thought I would have been as close to them as I was,” Foecke said. “That's why I think it's so difficult right now, is because I love them so much, want them to be so successful. I think overall, yeah, the season was a success because we learned so much from each other, from the coaches. We made bonds that will last a lifetime, and memories that we’ll cherish forever.”
Cook also reflected back on what this season meant to him.
“I thought last year it couldn't get any better,” Cook said. “I've had more fun coaching this year, more satisfaction, more enjoyment because of where we started, all the mountains we had to climb, and we get to this and play as competitive a match against a great Stanford team, they've already won a national championship, all these players. They had a great season.
“For us to compete and be in there in the end, it's pretty rewarding. But the bummer is Mikaela and Kenzie, this is our last match. We have a special bond. It's been really a cool journey with those guys. Like on my phone, my phone cover picture is of Mikaela and Kenzie sticking their tongues out at me, doing weird signs. They put that on there. I don't know how to get it off.”
Nebraska loses three seniors, but 12 other players are set to return from a 29-7 squad including core pieces like Stivrins, Hames and outside hitter Lexi Sun. Maloney said the seniors are leaving the team in “amazing hands.”
“I know Nicklin is going to lead this team back here again next year,” Maloney said. “Hardest working team I’ve ever been on, I’ve said that before. I know that if they put their minds to something, they’re going to achieve those goals.”
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.