MINNEAPOLIS — On Thursday, Nebraska (29-6) pulled off a near-improbable comeback against third-seeded Illinois (32-4) to win 3-2 after dropping the first two sets. In doing so, the Huskers turned their fourth straight Final Four appearance into a third National Championship appearance in four years.
After the comeback was completed, head coach John Cook, seniors Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke and sophomore Lexi Sun met with the media to recap what happened.
Here’s the full transcript from what they said.
Head coach John Cook
“For us, this was another Big Ten battle. This is what it was like every week in the Big Ten. Illinois is a great team. I mean, they brought out the best in us. I think we brought out the best in them. It was a very entertaining, fun match to watch, whether you're a fan, a coach, a player.
“Crowd got into it. We were here a year ago in the fifth, beat Penn State. We're used to it. Congratulations to Illinois on a heck of a season. [Illini coach] Chris [Tamas] has done a great job with that team. So pretty cool.”
On having only 4 blocks and still winning?
“I’m looking at our block stats and, you know… We take a lot of pride in blocking, it’s been a strength, we led the Big Ten in blocking. But, Illinois does a great job. Poulter’s a great setter, one of the best I’ve ever seen. She puts those hitters in such great positions and they’re hard to block, they hit high off our hands. I’ve got to look at the tape [for] why, but we still out-dug them by one.
“When you get to this point you’ve got to win close games and big points and that’s what this team’s been doing a great job of in the last five weeks, six weeks.
“And sometimes it’s not stuff blocks, it’s you get a touch and control it. I thought we did an okay job of that. And Illinois covers really well. I mean, we blocked some balls down and I don’t know how they got them up. They covered great.”
On what he was thinking after the players left the court and he was waiting for his TV interview?
“I… you know, I don’t know. I was just thinking this is a great Big Ten match, it was the best out of three against Illinois. It was an honor to play them. We’re used to this in our conference and it was just a really fun match to watch, and watch our team come back.
“We’ve still got a lot of young girls. I mean, we had four freshmen out there and those guys stuck with it and battled.
“I’ve been telling you guys in Lincoln all year, Foecke and Kenzie are great leaders. They willed that team and they willed those kids to play.”
On freshman setter Nicklin Hames?
“She looked like a freshman in the first couple games. But she’s a great competitor. She’s the first freshman ever to start at Nebraska, in the history of the program. It just shows you what kind of competitor she is and what kind of belief she has. She worked her way into that match and did a great job and got us some great swings when we really needed it, especially in those last three games.
On what makes Mikaela Foecke so good in December?
“I wish I could have the secret to what makes her go. Sometimes I go, ‘Why doesn’t she play like that all year long?’ You know? But the best way I can explain it is Mikaela has a very deep inner confidence and she has a deep belief in everything she does, academically, volleyball-wise, just whatever she does in her life. I think it’s part of her upbringing, coming from a farm where you’re tough, you don’t complain and you just find a way. She’s got it in her DNA and she’s proven it over and over and over.”
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney
On the team’s mindset coming out of set two, into set three?
“I mean, it was pretty obvious we were struggling early. We kind of just said we need a new team to come out in the third set. We all just dug down deep and genuinely believed we could do that, turn the match around. I don't know, we just played with a lot of heart. It really came together for us in the third set, from then on.”
On getting to a third national title match in her Nebraska career?
“Really hard to wrap my head around that. Like I said, I've said it before, I know this team has believed from the very beginning of our season we would be here, be in this position. So we're not going to be surprised by anything.
“But, yeah, it's just hard to think that Mikaela and I have been here for four years in a row. I've been honored to play with her, be her teammate for these past four years. Hopefully we can end our career on a high note.”
On the confidence Nebraska can gain going into Saturday’s match after what it did Thursday night?
“Yeah, I don't think that we were playing Nebraska volleyball till the third set. I said yesterday if we're playing Nebraska volleyball, doing the things that we need to do to execute, then I don't think anyone can beat us.
“Coming out on Saturday playing Stanford, if we're playing our game like we know how to, I think we'll end up with the win.”
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke
On the video challenge in the fifth set, determining whether her swing touched an Illinois defender on the way out and if she thought that was a Nebraska point?
“No, I definitely did not think I had a touch. If it wasn't for Lauren [Stivrins], I probably would have told Coach, ‘Don't challenge it.’ She convinced me, had my back. Won the challenge.
On if the Husker fans showing out had an impact on the match?
“Definitely. The Nebraska fans always bring it, they always turn out. I expect a bigger crowd on Saturday. I think without their support. . . Obviously, it's a huge help for us, a huge momentum builder when you have so many other fans cheering for each other along with us.”
On if she felt more energy in the fifth set than the first?
“The first game was definitely a bit down. Obviously, we didn't play our best level the first two sets by any means. I think we really made an uphill improvement. It was really hard. Obviously, we struggled throughout different points, throughout all sets. I think in the fifth set, there was a lot of energy from both teams, from the crowd. It was just really fun to play in.”
Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun
On going back to the locker room during the intermission and what was said to help come out better?
“I think this season, especially this tournament, I've been looking up to our captains right here. I think obviously they've been in this position before. They know how it's done, what needs to be done. I think we obviously weren't doing that in the first two games. I think just looking up to them, leaning on them, trusting in them. Like Kenzie said, coming out as a completely different team than we were in the first two sets.”
On whether she felt she needed to take over in set four with Foecke struggling to get into the game?
“I don't know. I didn't really realize she wasn't getting sets that game. I feel like at every point, I tried to do what I could to help the team in the best way I could. If I'm getting those sets, I'm trying to swing high hands, put the ball away.
“I feel like as a team we did a pretty good job later in the game mixing it up as it went on.”
Illinois coach Chris Tamas
“First off, words can't express how proud I am of this group. We have been beating expectations ever since we kind of started this a couple years ago. Two years ago we were picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten, finished tied for fifth, made it to the Sweet 16. This year we're picked to finish fifth preconference, able to have a really great season. I told them in the locker room, This goes down as one of the all-time best teams that I've been around. Continually beating expectations, put the challenge to them every day to just work their tails off. They did that.
“I couldn't be more happy for the team. Obviously you want to win. You don't want to go out on a loss. Just really proud of them.
“As far as the match goes, Nebraska is a great team. Firsthand knowledge of how they train, how hard they work, as well. I coached a couple of them for multiple years. We knew we were going to have to expect a battle. We knew they weren't going away after we won the first two sets.
“Thought we could hopefully close out that third set. They caught a couple big plays on us, kind of took control of the match in the fourth set. Back and forth there in the fifth. It's what we're used to in the Big Ten.
“It's a bummer we fell a little bit short. But hats off to Nebraska, the team, their team, for a good match. Again, to my team as well, for making it where we did. Just really proud of their efforts. Happy that I'm their coach and that we've been around each other day in, day out for the last couple years. Really do appreciate it.
On the impact Lexi Sun had on the game?
“Yeah, we had a good beat on her early on. Forced her into some things we didn't want her to do. I've seen Lexi play since she was in eighth grade, knew she was a good player. Not a surprise she had the night that she did.
“I felt like we had her blocked, good setups. She's a phenomenal athlete, able to go over the block, go around us. She was hitting shots she wanted as the match went on. Felt we could have dug her a little bit more a few times. She was hitting really good spots. Any hitter that can do that — mix around their shots like she did — makes it difficult to get a beat on what they're doing. That was the difficulty in stopping her tonight.”
On Nebraska battling back after falling down 2-0?
”We knew they weren't going to go away. You don't make it to four straight Final Fours by chance. They had one of the best outside hitters in the country with Mikaela. We knew they were going to ride her. We knew they're not going down without a fight.
“Again, just part of being in our conference, especially knowing her and Kenzie and coaching Lauren. They're a force out there. It's just difficult. You have to execute really well over the course of a match. They came back. We talk a lot about the serve and pass game. You saw that in full force, full effect tonight, where I thought we had a good bead on them the first couple sets, but they came back and got some matchups that maybe they wanted, were able to pick apart some of our serve-receive, which has been a real strength for us all year.
“They're a good defensive team. I think they're a top defensive team in our conference. Just makes it difficult to score points. It can get frustrating. I don't think we ever got frustrated. I just think we didn't get a couple swings we wanted to at certain times. You can't force a swing if it's not there.
“We talked about putting ourselves in positions to make great choices. I thought we put ourselves in a lot of great positions tonight. I thought Nebraska made a lot of great plays. Both sides made a lot of great plays. You saw a good match because of it.”