MINNEAPOLIS — Ahead of Saturday's national title match against Stanford, the Huskers met with the media Friday to talk Thursday’s rousing comeback win over Illinois, prep for the Cardinal and plenty more.
Head coach John Cook, libero Kenzie Maloney and outside hitter Mikaela Foecke all spoke in what amounted to a 20-minute question and answer session.
Here’s what they had to say.
Head coach John Cook
“[Freshman] Callie Schwarzenbach informed me today there's only two teams practicing, and we're one of them.
“We're excited to be in the national championship match. Got to get to practice and prepare. Stanford is a good team. It's going to be a great challenge.”
On the Huskers only having four blocks against Illinois and whether he got the chance to look at game film to determine why the number was so low?
“No, no. I just know we're going to work on it in practice today, what we got to fix. It was a short night. We've already had a full day today. This obviously being the highlight. ”
On Nebraska and Stanford’s continued dominance of the sport and what allows that to be the case?
“It's a great question. I don't have an answer for that. I just know I think both programs have high expectations. When players go to those schools, they know what they're in for. So there's tradition at both those schools. Probably the cultures are a lot different from Stanford and Nebraska.
“I know parking and going out to eat is a lot cheaper in Lincoln than in Palo Alto. But yeah, I mean, Stanford is one of the premier programs in volleyball. They are in a lot of sports.”
On their scouting report and what Stanford needs to do to beat Nebraska?
“I don't really know how they approach it or how they scout, how they prepare. I think hopefully they're worried about our serve-blocking defense. They know this is a team that has won a lot of big matches to get here, a lot of big, close matches against a lot of really good teams.”
On why people shouldn’t be surprised the Huskers made it back to the final match?
“Mikaela and Kenzie. 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 whether Stanford and Nebraska are overlapping on the recruiting trail?
“Let's see. We recruited Jenna Gray, Audriana Fitzmorris. We were the first ones I think to offer Morgan Hentz. Rest of those guys are pretty much from California or Canada.
“I think we do cross a lot. But I think once a student-athlete has a shot to go to Stanford, it's tough to recruit against that. Stanford always makes them wait till they can find out if they get into school. Recruiting has been really early. When they say they're waiting for Stanford, it's hard to hang in there till they're a junior, to find out if they get in or not.
“Yeah, the Midwest kids, I think there's a lot of overlap.”
On where Stanford’s talent ranks among teams the Huskers have faced?
“Last year we had to beat what people said was the greatest recruiting class ever at Penn State. Illinois had the number one recruiting class of seniors. We're used to playing against these top-rated recruiting classes.
“We had the number one class, which were seniors in 2016. There's something to that. It comes down to it's a team effort. You got to play well on these big stages.”
On the benefit of Lexi Sun when she’s on?
“Well, it helps us be balanced. She bails us out of system-type plays. Last night we were out of system a lot. It takes a load off Mikaela. Tomorrow night we're going to need to have everybody hitting on all cylinders attacking-wise. We're going to have to be balanced. A couple of people have to have some big matches.”
On getting secondary contributions from players like freshman Capri Davis?
“Like I said, we can't try to think that Mikaela can carry us against these teams. We always promote and try to get our team to understand that everybody contributes, everybody has a chance to help our team win.”
“We typically, after matches, are giving positive reinforcement to Megan Miller or Capri, what difference they made. We've been building that all year.
“They feel like maybe it's one kill, one dig, one ace, but that could be the difference in a match. Last night, if you look at total points, it was a two-point difference. That's the way it is this time of year. Every point really matters. You got to fight for every point. Any time those guys can make a contribution or find a way to get us a point, it's a huge deal.”
On what the Huskers were able to accomplish this season?
“Well, last year was a magical year for us. I thought, ‘It doesn't get much better than this.’ I think this year has gone up another notch. We've had so many new players, playing so many young players. Jaylen is a very young coach. It's really his first time in women's volleyball.
“To be the number one defensive team in the country, with a 5'9" setter, it's not [Illinois’ Jordyn] Poulter up there blocking. Poulter is a great blocker, for example.
“I'm very proud of what this team's done. I've really, really enjoyed the process because of Mikaela and Kenzie. Last January as soon as we got back to school, I called those guys in and 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.
“It's been a really cool process. You can hear when these guys talk about how close they are, how connected they are. Again, that is not just something that just happens. That is a lot of work. It's pretty cool to be around student-athletes when they invest in that, they believe in it, they trust the process, they work at it.
“We had several times to implode the ship. I mean, we lost three in a row. All these guys from Nebraska, all I'm reading about, we never lost three in a row, lost five out of seven. These guys didn't even flinch.
“It's pretty rewarding. I think that's what you want as a coach. You want to see your team get better, go through the process, peak at the end. I was looking at I think Mikaela and Kenzie's record now in the month of November and December, remember this is November in the Big Ten for four years, counting those matches, I think they're 52-2. We're pretty prideful about that. It's pretty cool.”
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney
On Stanford’s blocking?
“I know in practice we work a lot on tooling the block, hitting high lines. It's something we're really comfortable with. Hopefully it will be an advantage for us to have a big block up there tomorrow.”
On the Huskers’ young players gaining composure as the match went on against Illinois?
“Yeah, I think coming out, everybody had a lot of nerves, not just freshmen, everyone involved. But, yeah, I thought Nicklin and Megan really stepped up when we needed them to. Megan had a great game, digging everything. Nicklin ran the show. She was just playing her game, kind of took over the match in sets three through five. I'm just really proud of them. ”
On Foecke’s game elevating in the big ones?
“We kind of talked about it in practice a few times. Mikaela just has confidence. She always trusts her training when she goes into big matches like that. She stays composed, keeps the rest of us composed, as well.
“I think the bigger the stage for her, the more confidence she has. She just runs with that.”
On whether they had to adjust to the environment of the Final Four?
“I don't know, there's a lot of distractions going on like in the huddles, whatnot, on the big screens. I think making sure we stay focused, listening to what our coaches are telling us, focusing on adjustments. ”
On how long it took the team to calm down after the win?
“Maybe not until this morning. I don't know, we're roommates, we were both really excited. It was hard for us to get to sleep.
Obviously it was a great win, but now we got to kind of put that behind us and just focus on taking care of business tomorrow night.”
On if she’s watched tape from Thursday yet and, if so, what she saw?
“I haven't watched the full game, but I saw some highlights on Twitter and whatnot. I don't know, I think just focusing on the big plays, the things that we did well are something we should really take into tomorrow night just to give us confidence. Just really focus on making those big plays and not being afraid of failing, just going for it.”
On whether the team enjoys practice?
“I would say so. The main reason is just because we like being together. I mean, I don't know, I just think the relationships that we have with each other are genuine. It's fun to get into the practice gym, get better, learn with each other every day.”
On whether Saturday’s match feels like a heavyweight bout?
“Yeah, for sure. Just because we've never played Stanford, so we're going to have to do a little bit extra scouting probably. Obviously Stanford is a great program. They have a lot of great players, can terminate balls just as well as we can. It will be a really great match.”
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke
On Stanford’s blocking?
“I think the biggest thing for us is just playing Nebraska volleyball, focusing on our side of the net, doing the things we can control. Hopefully we shouldn't have anything else to worry about.”
On whether she had to adjust to the Final Four environment?
“I think there's always a big adjustment when you're coming to the Final Four. It's in a huge stage, in front of a ton of people, not everyone is used to playing in front of. I think the adrenaline of being at the Final Four is a big part of that, as well. The first two sets, we didn't handle that pressure very well. We were able to come back in the third and really bounce back.”
On her upbringing influencing her game and work ethic?
“I think that's really just what the people you surround yourself with. Obviously here at Nebraska, everyone is working just as hard, pushing themselves to get better. I think that just started from a young age for me with my parents, the work ethic they have. I really give the credit to them. They really exemplified what hard work meant.”