Nebraska’s senior class didn’t get the fairy tale ending it deserved, but its legacy was was in stone well before Saturday’s championship. Taking top-seeded Stanford to five and finishing as the national runner-up was just another foot note in the storied careers of Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, as well as Brooke Smith.
Over the past four years, Nebraska has won 124 matches, made four Final Fours and captured two national titles. The Huskers have gone 69-11 (.863) with two conference titles in the toughest league in the country,
Great players like Kadie and Amber Rolfzen and Kelly Hunter and Briana Holman and Justine Wong-Orantes and more have come and gone during that streak of four straight Final Four appearances, but outside of Coach John Cook, there have been two constants.
“Mikaela and Kenzie,” Cook said. “That's why we shouldn’t be surprised. It's hard to bet against those guys, if it was legal in the NCAA. Of course, it's not legal in the NCAA. But if it was, it would be hard to bet against those guys. That's what I've been saying. I don't really know how to explain it. That's the common denominator, is those guys.”
On Thursday, Foecke and Maloney set a new record for career postseason matches and sets played. The championship game was the 23rd NCAA Tournament match for the pair of seniors. The previous record was 21 shared by three Huskers.
Foecke, the 6-foot-3 outside hitter from West Point, Iowa, was a key part of Nebraska’s attack from day one. She was second on the team in kills per set as a freshman (2.77) and a sophomore (2.93) behind Kadie Rolfzen, then emerged as the team’s go-to hitter as a junior, bumping her average up to 3.53 while growing into a six-rotation player. She took her game to a new level as a senior, averaging 3.8 kills per set on a career-high .318 hitting and 2.67 digs per set.
Foecke finished her career third all-time in program history in career kills with 1,684. She’s second in the rally scoring era behind only Sarah Pavan. She’s second in career attacks behind only Pavan as well after shouldering a heavy workload all four years of her career.
She received All-America recognition from the AVCA all four years (First Team in 2018, Second Team in 2017, Honorable Mention in 2016 and 2015). She was named to the All-Big Ten team in 2017 and 2018 and was honorable mention in 2016. She was named the Senior CLASS Award winner for volleyball as a senior, recognizing her accomplishments on and off the court.
“Foecke is amazing, the greatest player I have ever played with by far,” Maloney said. “It’s going to be crazy to tell my kids one day, ‘Yeah, I played with Mikaela Foecke’ because she’s just a legend. Off the court, she’s just the greatest friend and she’s loyal and honest and I just really appreciate and have been honored to play with her for the last four years.”
But what separates Foecke is her ability to elevate her game on the biggest of stages. She’s a true primetime performer who saved her best volleyball for the postseason.
Foecke was a two-time NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player and All-Tournament Team selection, becoming just the third player to win the award as a freshman when she led the Huskers past Texas in the 2015 title match.
She is first all-time in career postseason kills (309), passing Pavan with a career-high 27 kills in the title match. She passed Pavan in career postseason attacks (749) in that match as well. She’s second behind only Jordan Larson in career postseason aces with 26.
Foecke’s 2018 postseason run was good enough for fourth on the all-time single season kills list with 101 and third in single-season attacks with 235.
In seven career NCAA Championship matches (the National Semifinal and Final), Foecke’s numbers spike to 4.45 kills per set on .300 hitting and 2.33 digs per set (2.89 as a six-rotation player) with nine aces.
“I think it’s just her inner confidence and her ability to raise it a level when everything’s on the line,” Cook said. “How’s Michael Jordan do it? How’s Tom Brady do it? Those guys are special.”
Nicklin Hames, Nebraska’s freshman setter, said Foecke made the team believe they could go all the way this season.
“It makes me cheer up a little bit thinking about it,” said Hames, fighting back tears after the loss on Saturday. “She’s just unbelievable. She’s an unbelievable person and that just makes her so much more fun to play with because you know she always has your back on and off the court. She’s been one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with as well. It’s hard. She’s also the best player I’ve played with. Losing her, I’m losing a friend and I’m losing a teammate as well.”
Nebraska, you have a piece of my heart pic.twitter.com/v0mro9t7fT
— Mikaela Richter (@mikaela_foecke) December 16, 2018
Maloney’s story at Nebraska is a little different than Foecke’s. She was the top-ranked libero recruit in her high school class according to PrepVolleyball.com, but Justine Wong-Orantes had that position locked down when Maloney arrived on campus. The native of Louisville, Kentucky, began her career as a defensive specialist. She averaged 1.75 digs per set her first two years playing alongside Wong-Orantes in the back row, though she did start three matches at libero while Wong-Orantes was injured.
As a junior, Maloney settled into the libero role following Wong-Orantes’ graduation and helped lead the Huskers to the national championship, averaging 3.62 digs per set and serving up 37 aces. As a senior, she averaged 4.03 digs per set with 37 more aces.
“I’m really proud,” Maloney said. “Justine was here before me and she left a great legacy, so one of my fears was not being able to leave my own mark but I can proudly say that I think I’ve done that.”
Cook certainly agrees.
“Probably in some areas, Kenzie’s exceeded Justine … I’ve seen times where they’d go for balls and Kenzie would go right by Justine” Cook said ahead of Nebraska’s Senior Night. “Kenzie’s so athletic that she’s made plays all around off the court that very few liberos in the country can make. Think about that: she’s No. 1 in our performance index testing. That’s over: Amber Rolfzen’s second, Briana Holman, Kadie Rolfzen, Kelly Hunter, those guys. She’s No. 1 on the board.”
Like Foecke, Maloney stepped her game up in the postseason as well. She served a program record 13 aces in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, including five in the National Semifinal and Final, one behind Penn State’s Micha Hancock’s record in the 25-point rally-scoring era. She was named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team in 2017.
This season, Maloney recorded 95 digs, good for third most in program postseason history behind only Dani Busboom Kelly (who coached Maloney as a freshman) and Wong-Orantes (in 2015). She moved ahead of Larson, Wong-Orantes (2016) and current Nebraska coach Kayla Banwarth with 17 digs in the Final.
“I can’t even put into words how much I’ve learned from her just from watching but also her coaching me on the court,” freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller said. “She’s been as much of a coach to me as Kayla and John have. She means the world to me. I look up to her, obviously because she’s an all-star.”
Husker Nation, thank you for an incredible 4 years. You will be missed. https://t.co/5GqiD6x0jg
— Kenzie Maloney (@KenzieMaloney1) December 17, 2018
Smith’s path was dramatically different than her two classmates, but she was a key part of the program nonetheless.
Smith, reserve setter and sometimes serving specialist, appeared in just 30 sets across 18 matches her first two seasons, recording 10 digs, nine aces and one assist.
Seeking a greater opportunity to get on the court, Smith transferred to Kansas State for her junior year. In Manhattan, Smith split setting duties and averaged 4.71 assists and 1.71 digs per set with three double-doubles and 27 aces.
Smith missed Nebraska and all of her friends in Lincoln, however, and with Cook’s blessing she transferred back to Nebraska for her final year. The NCAA originally ruled her ineligible shortly before the season, but Smith won an appeal and was allowed to play.
She appeared in 12 matches and 24 sets this season, recording nine assists, three digs and an ace. Smith was part of a double-substitution Cook liked to use in certain situations to get a better blocker into the front row in place of the 5-foot-10 Hames. However, her greatest contributions came behind the scenes with her helping co-captains Foecke and Maloney to lead a young team full of underclassmen. Cook called her the “team mom.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of this group of girls,” Smith said. “Nebraska is just a really special place and has a really special place in my heart. I’ve cherished every moment here my last year and previously when I was here. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Hames spoke to Smith’s importance on Saturday.
“Brooke is a great friend and a great teammate,” Hames said. “She’s already told me that if I ever need anything that she always is there for me. We spend a lot of time together and she just brings so much energy and effort to our team and our team would never bee the same if she wasn’t on it. We’re going to miss her tremendously as well.”
A year ago at this time, Cook was a little worried about leadership after losing three-year captain Kelly Hunter along with four-year contributors Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend. At the time, Foecke and Maloney were the only seniors-to-be, though they hadn’t asserted themselves as vocal leaders at all to that point. However, they tackled that role and grew into it, and Cook took advantage of any chance he got to praise their growth and leadership this season.
“I've really, really enjoyed the process because of Mikaela and Kenzie,” Cook said during his Friday press conference ahead of the title match. “Last January as soon as we got back to school, I called those guys in, said, Here is the deal. You guys are captains. They both looked at me like, ‘We're captains already?’ ‘Yeah, it's by default because we really don't have anybody else. You're going to be the captains.’
“I don't think either one of those guys were going through their career saying, ‘I can't wait to be a captain.’ 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.”
With equal parts sadness and pride in her voice, Maloney reflected back over the senior class’ careers at Nebraska following her final match in a Nebraska uniform.
“It’s incredible,” Maloney said. “Obviously I chose the right school to attend; I’m glad that I chose the University of Nebraska. Foecke and Brooke and I had a goal coming in freshman year that we wanted to leave a legacy and leave our mark and we can proudly say that we’ve done that. I’m just glad that we’ve accomplished so much while we’ve been here.”
Nebraska is losing one of the most accomplished senior classes in the history of one of the most storied programs in college volleyball, but the Huskers are set to bring back 12 players including five starters and three key reserves, and the lessons the seniors have taught the underclassmen will carry the team into next season.
“Just never give up,” sophomore defensive specialist Hayley Densberger said. “Through all the ups and downs and everything that they’ve taught us, it’s just that their work ethic is so crazy and I think that’s rubbed off on all of us and we’re going to take this moment as a learning curve and just work even harder next year.”
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.