John Cook addressed the crowd after Friday’s Big Ten title-clinching win over Iowa, sharing a story from the very start of the season.
Before official practices began, the team — led by the seniors — went to Cook and his staff with a presentation making the case for “Why Not Us? and “With Each Other For Each Other” should be the team’s mantra this season.
Cook said that was the first time a team had ever come to him with something like that, and he was blown away. Cook’s voice broke at the end of his address as he fought back the emotions that had bubbled up as he reflected on this team’s accomplishment.
“[He said] that he just really wanted this for us and he’s never wanted something so bad for a team because he felt that this team really deserved it because we did work hard,” senior middle blocker Briana Holman said. “We started on this journey in the summer.”
Nebraska lost three All-Americans and another key contributor at important positions from last year’s Big Ten champion and National Semifinalist. The Huskers added two redshirt and five true freshmen to the mix and moved a few returners into new roles. Few expected to see the Huskers right back where they were last year, yet here we are after a 26-4 regular season and a 19-1 run through the Big Ten (one game better than what last year’s squad accomplished).
“I give credit to those seniors,” Cook said. “We probably don’t have more talent than we did last year but as a team they played really well together. Kelly [Hunter] has been at an elite level and Sydney [Townsend] and Anni [Albrecht] have stepped up in their roles and embraced that; they’ve probably exceeded what anybody ever thought they could do. Our freshmen have done a great job of making a very competitive level in practice and Jazz [Sweet] has filled in really nicely in an area where we really needed someone to step up.”
The season got off to a rough start with All-American setter Kelly Hunter missing the first two matches with an injury suffered during the preseason. The Huskers dropped both matches to a pair of top-20 teams in Oregon and Florida.
However, Hunter soon returned to the lineup and the Huskers have only dropped two more games since. Nebraska passed its next test against a ranked foe, sweeping UCLA twice in the same weekend.
“I think the key match was winning at Penn State, the first weekend,” Cook said. “Winning there 3-0, all of a sudden we just thought, ‘Wow, were pretty good. We can do this.’ I think that was a huge confidence-builder for us.”
After winning at Penn State, the Huskers made short work of an over-matched Rutgers team then took down three straight top-15 opponents in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
“I think it just started us off the way we needed to be and I think it also gave us the confidence to know that we are a great team.,” Albrecht said. “We wanted to create our own identity this year and so to come out with a bang like that, and especially against Penn State who’s a great team really just gave us a big boost for the Big Ten.”
The Huskers couldn’t have gotten to this point without some serious growth along the way. Nearly every member of the regular rotation was either new (freshmen and redshirt freshmen) or in a new role.
Foecke transitioned from a pure outside hitter into a six-rotation player, meaning she played all the way around including in the back row. In the first 16 matches of the season, Foecke averaged 3.2 kills per set while hitting .219. Over the last 14, those numbers jumped to 3.9 kills per set and .379 hitting. She has settled in and is playing at an exceptionally high level.
Junior Kenzie Maloney shifted over from defensive specialist to the libero role, stepping in for one of the best Nebraska has ever had in Justine Wong-Orantes. Maloney struggled a bit at times early on as evidenced by her 16 service errors in her first 24 sets (with just four aces). After settling in, Maloney has recorded just 18 errors in 79 sets while serving up 20 aces.
Senior Sydney Townsend slid into Maloney’s old role as defensive specialist and recorded 245 digs this year after having just 211 through her first three seasons.
True freshman right side hitter Jazz Sweet and redshirt freshman middle blocker Lauren Stivrins stepped in for Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, respectively, and have played well.
Even Holman, who was the one player who did not really see a significant change in her role, had to adjust to a new position coach in Tyler Hildebrand after Chris Tamas left to take the head coaching job at Illinois following the 2016 season.
“Briana Holman’s had four coaches the last four years — coaches at LSU, Dan Meske here, then Chris [Tamas] and now Tyler [Hildebrand],” Cook said. “Here’s a kid who has literally been abandoned four times in college. So we bring Tyler in, she doesn’t know Tyler from anywhere so for her to accept him and continue to work with him — and it was not pretty at the beginning.”
Perhaps the most impressive transformation was by Albrecht, however. The senior spent her first three seasons playing as a defensive specialist, though Nebraska kept her “outside hitter” designation on the official roster. With Andie Malloy graduating, Nebraska needed another left side hitter to play with Foecke and Cook put his trust in Albrecht.
In her first three seasons as a part-time hitter, Albrecht hit .114. In the first five matches this year, Albrecht hit .085, missing on almost as many attacks as she converted. It was looking more and more like the second left side hitter spot would be a big weakness for this team, at least offensively (Albrecht continued her strong play on defense).
Then something clicked starting with the pair of matches against UCLA. From that point onward, Albrecht hit .294 with just two matches under .200 (a mark she didn’t reach at all in those first five). Suddenly, Nebraska had weapons everywhere on the floor and a setter in Hunter who knew how to get them the ball.
“We had five new players, complete new coaches, new managers, new video person, it was just such major turnover that we just felt like ‘OK, this was a rebuild year; we’ll get Mikaela in there and get her experience as a six-rotation, get Kenzie experience as a libero, and we can have a pretty good team,’” Cook said. “But to do what this group did and as we were building, I think they really put in and made the magic for it to happen. It was not easy; it was not easy. But they worked really hard at it. I give credit to those seniors. Kelly’s the leader of that group and I challenged her to be better this year than she was last year and I think she’s done it. She’s now put herself in an elite category.”
In 2016, a veteran Huskers squad came into the season as the reigning champs with all the expectations in the world. This year, they had to build it back up almost from scratch.
“I almost think more exciting just because last year there was all the expectation to win and we came in ranked No. 1 last year” Foecke said. “This year it was kind of like what’s Nebraska going to be? What’s our team identity? We really came out this year and proved we are a great team and we’re capable of being up there with all the big dogs. I think this means a lot to us.”
One thing that comes up in nearly every John Cook press conference is how much of a grind the Big Ten season is. Now, after 10 weeks, the Huskers have come out on top.
“We thrived,” Albrecht said. “Its hard. All of the teams we played are really good and none of the teams are going to give it to us — Iowa, for example; third set they played so great — so we really had to impose our will on them and play great. They weren’t going to give it to us; we had to win it ourselves.”
Now, the Huskers have to turn their attention to their next challenge: the NCAA Tournament. The path won’t get any easier with the likes of Kentucky, Baylor and BYU in Nebraska’s quadrant of the bracket and Florida, Penn State, Stanford and Texas lurking for a potential Final Four or National Championship meeting.
It all gets started on Friday night at the Devaney Center. Why Not Nebraska?
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.