Why not us?
That’s the question the Nebraska volleyball team asked before the 2017 season began. As it turns out, nobody had an answer for them.
Not the fourth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats. Not the first-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions. Not the second-seeded Florida Gators.
Nebraska ran through all of them and more on their way to the program’s fifth national championship.
The Huskers beat the Gators 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City Saturday night to cap off a 32-4 season with a championship, the fourth for Coach John Cook at Nebraska.
“I feel very honored and privileged to be around a team and a staff that's had an unbelievable belief in what we could do,” Cook said. “As head coach, sometimes I don't think we're very good, but these guys gave everybody an example in the sport of volleyball that you don't have to have five All-Americans. We started two walk-ons today, Anni [Albrecht] and Sydney [Townsend]. But you saw a team play great team volleyball.
“I saw Coach [Terry] Pettit had an article called ‘old-school volleyball.’ It was serve, block, dig, and try not to make errors on offense and get a few sideouts. And you saw our serve-blocking defense really frustrated Florida today. That's what this team has been built on all year. They've embraced it, and they've had unbelievable leadership from the senior class.”
Senior setter Kelly Hunter and junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke were named Co-Most Outstanding Players and were joined on the all-tournament team by junior libero Kenzie Maloney, Florida’s Rhamat Alhassan and Carli Snyder, Penn State’s Simone Lee and Stanford’s Merete Lutz.
Foecke finished with a match-high 20 kills and 14 digs. In 19 NCAA Championship (semifinals and final) sets over the last three years, Foecke has averaged 4.37 kills, 2.37 digs and 0.32 aces per set. She was also named Most Outstanding Player after the Huskers’ championship in 2015, making her just the fourth player to take home the award twice.
“The first time I thought was extra special, and winning a National Championship seems like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so to be here a second time is something that I'm super grateful for,” Foecke said. “I wouldn't want anyone else to be the most outstanding player other than Kelly. She's the most deserving person on our team. She works so hard every single day, and she's such a great leader and mentor to all of us. We definitely wouldn't be here without her.”
Hunter finished with 37 assists, eight digs, six kills on 10 swings and two aces. She also made the all-tournament team in 2015. Hunter finishes her career second in program history with 4,125 assists and third in post-season assists with 564. Her postseason record of 16-1 is a program record, both in terms of total wins and in win percentage.
“Kelly, I think, was the best setter in the country, and I think on the biggest stage and on the biggest night, I think she was the best player on the floor,” Florida coach Mary Wise said.
Maloney finished with a team-high 15 digs and an ace and also put down two kills from her libero spot. Her 13 aces is a school record for the NCAA Tournament and her five aces in the NCAA Championship is the second most ever in the 25-point scoring era behind Penn State setter Micha Hancock’s six in 2013.
Saturday’s attendance of 18,516 broke the record set in 2015 in Omaha, and most of the fans were decked out in red both years.
“How cool is this for volleyball?” Cook said. “18,000, sold out, happened to be close to Nebraska, which was a big help. But those fans still traveled down here to fill this place, and what a great statement for the sport of volleyball and how it's growing. It's pretty cool.
The Huskers hit .234 and held the Gators to .141. Nebraska out-dug Florida 65 to 49.
Nebraska got off to a quick 3-1 start behind two early kills for Stivrins but Florida battled back and took an 11-9 lead with a 3-0 run. Another 3-0 Florida run put the Gators ahead 15-11, but Nebraska ripped off a 7-0 scoring run to take an 18-15 lead. Florida battled back to tie it at 22-all, but an off-target serve and an attack into the antenna gave the Huskers set point. Foecke took it from there, finishing it off with her fifth kill of the set.
Nebraska won the set despite hitting just .081.
Nebraska opened the second set with a 3-0 run, then stretched that into a 9-5 lead after a kill by Stivrins. A 3-0 Nebraska run made it 16-9 and the Huskers cruised from there to an eight-point victory. Foecke was there again for the set-sealing kill, her 10th.
“I think we just kind of settled in [during the second set],” Foecke said. “It's the first set of the National Championship. You're obviously going to have some jitters and you're going to want to pound every single ball, but obviously, they had a huge block, and Florida sets up a great block every single time. So the second set, I think Kelly was just putting us in great spots and we were using the block more and using more shots.”
Florida threw the first punch in the third, opening with a 3-0 run, but Nebraska responded with a 5-1 stretch to take a 5-4 lead. Alhassan served the Gators to a 4-0 run to pull ahead 10-6. Florida stretched its lead out to as much as eight at 21-13, but Nebraska tried to claw back into the match with a 4-1 run to make it 22-17. The Gators regrouped after a timeout, however, and closed out the set to extend the match.
The fourth set was all Nebraska, however, as the Huskers opened with a 4-0 run, then followed it with a 5-0 run to make it 9-1 Nebraska. A 4-0 Florida run gave the Gators life and cut the deficit to four at 14-10, but a 3-0 Huskers run following a Nebraska timeout pushed it back to seven. Florida got no closer than within six the rest of the way and once again it was Foecke who put down the match-sealing kill.
“With each other, for each other.” That was the mantra that drove the Huskers all season long, and that’s the way they received the trophy at the end of Saturday’s match.
“Only one group of players gets to go out on top, and fortunate enough for us, that's us this year,” Hunter said. “This is my favorite group since I've been here. We proved a lot of people wrong. We grinded all season long, and it was a long season. But we worked every single day and that made us so close. I'm going to remember this group for a really long time.”
Nebraska will hold its championship celebration on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. at the Devaney Center. Doors open at 11 a.m. and parking will be available in Lot 58 free of charge.
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.