KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From locker room dancing to Halloween practice high jinks, John Cook from time to time will indulge the playfulness of his team.
The coach thought he’d thrown them another bone in Kansas City when he posed for a holiday portrait — the players crouched in front of a Christmas tree with Cook reclined at their feet, head propped on one arm.
Just when he thought the bit was done, his phone started lighting up. Senior Kelly Hunter had cropped Cook out of the photo and pasted his prone pose on other backgrounds. That’s a new one, Cook thought, as the memes bounced around the team’s group chat.
“There’s always something going with these guys,” Cook said. “It never ends.”
The Huskers have yet to run out of ways to surprise their coach in one of the most memorable seasons in Cook’s Hall of Fame career. He has coached teams with more talent and more populated with All-Americans, but when Nebraska (31-4) faces Florida (31-1) at 8 p.m. Saturday, the group that has exceeded all expectations will chase one final landmark, trying to become the first group in program history to win two NCAA titles in three seasons.
“Regardless of what happens in the finals, this team will go down as a legendary team in the chronicles of Nebraska volleyball history and Kelly will go down as one of the greatest setters ever to play at Nebraska,” Cook said. “Those guys have done an amazing job, and like I said, they’ll be legends.
“They’ll be talking about this team for a long time.”
Nebraska is playing for its fifth NCAA title, and Cook’s fourth as coach, but no Husker has won more than one national championship. Six remain on the roster from Nebraska’s 2015 title team: Seniors Hunter, Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend join juniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney in playing in a second national final. They join senior Briana Holman, who redshirted the 2015 season after transferring from LSU.
“Kelly and I were just talking about it the other day,” Albrecht said. “It would be pretty cool to have four rings, two national championships and two Big Tens.”
Standing in the Huskers’ way is a Florida team shouldering its own bit of history as it seeks a first national championship for the program and for 27-year coach Mary Wise, who would become the first woman in the NCAA era to lead a national title team.
“This is a sport where male coaches do dominate, especially with championship teams,” Florida’s All-America middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan said. “To be able to (win Wise’s first championship) in itself would be amazing. Just to create history at the University of Florida is another milestone that we really want to reach.”
Wise took pains Friday to shift the spotlight off of herself and on to what the achievement would mean for the program. The Gators have won 23 SEC championships under Wise, including sharing this year’s with Kentucky, but only once has Florida reached the season’s final match, losing to USC in 2003.
Gator players understand that they will try to win their first NCAA championship on hostile ground, with the sheer number of Nebraska fans at the Sprint Center erasing any notion of a neutral floor. Wise has been bombarded with messages from other Florida coaches and former players. Team USA member Kelly Murphy, a former Florida All-American, gave a tearful sendoff as the team left Gainesville, telling them to capitalize on a moment other Gators never got to experience.
“The look on the players at that moment, and they realized it’s really not just about us,” Wise said. “We are carrying the Gator Nation with us through this run as well.”
“I love that we’re going to be playing in front of 16,000 Nebraska fans and we’re going to have our little section of orange and blue that’s going to be cheering us on,” Florida libero Caroline Knop said. “That’s all we need to be completely honest.”
But the match will be played on the court, where both teams said Friday they expected the match to turn on who can create the best transition opportunities in long rallies. The advantage there went to Florida during the teams’ first meeting on Aug. 26 in Gainesville.
With Hunter out injured, the Huskers took a season-high 193 swings but hit .155. Cook felt, even without the All-American from Papillion-La Vista South, the team had missed a golden chance and didn’t disguise his feelings to the team afterward.
“We were right there, and I felt that we had a chance to win that and we backed off,” Cook said. “I try not to get upset with our team, but sometimes you have to show fire when they didn’t take advantage of their opportunity and go for it.”
Nebraska hasn’t missed many opportunities since, taking the country’s longest active winning streak (18 matches) into the NCAA final. The next longest is Florida’s streak, which now stands at 15 after the Gators beat Stanford in five games Thursday night.
To keep the Huskers from hitting against Florida’s formidable block, led by the 6-foot-4 Alhassan who leads the country with 1.7 blocks per set, Nebraska’s passers will need to get Hunter the ball in positions where she can spread out the offense. Against Penn State, four Huskers had at least 12 kills, led by 19 from Mikaela Foecke.
“She’s a master at running a balanced attack; she has her whole career,” Cook said. “Just it’s a gift that setters have, the great setters have that. They just know; they have a feel. Every time you look at the stats, ‘Wow, look how balanced we are.’ She’s one of the best we’ve had.”
To achieve that kind of balance, there can’t be ego, Cook said, whether it’s from a setter who has a preferred hitter, or a hitter who pouts if they don’t get enough sets.
“In the huddles we always are really good about moving on to the next play and taking a deep breath,” senior Sydney Townsend said. “You can just tell everyone really cares about each other.”
Look again at the Christmas tree picture. The Huskers flashing toothy grins while their Hall of Fame coach lays prone at their feet.
Maybe you’d be surprised that it’s not Hunter’s favorite photo of the weekend.
The senior broke a yearlong Twitter silence early Friday morningto post a picture of the team in a huddle on the court Thursday night. The Huskers, arms circling each other, are on the photo’s left side, and on the right, the NCAA championship logo.
Perhaps the only one that could top it is one of them holding a trophy.
“Like I said in my tweet, I love this team, and this has probably been my favorite year since I’ve been here, of my five,” Hunter said. “People like it, loved it. It’s just one of those great pictures that you’ll never forget.”
Breaking down the NCAA volleyball title match between Nebraska and Florida
NEBRASKA’S SERVING VS. FLORIDA’S PASSING
Nebraska is plenty physical, but this isn’t one of the Huskers’ vintage blocking teams. The Huskers’ .154 opponent attack percentage is largely the result of tough serving that puts other teams in pressured spots. That means NU often has to serve aggressively, which raises its service errors. NU committed 11 service errors on Thursday against Penn State but also had 10 aces. If NU doesn’t challenge Florida’s passers, the Gators can get the ball to middle blockers Rhamat Alhassan, who can jump-touch above 11 feet, and Rachael Kramer. Nebraska will need to gum up Florida’s 6-2 offense before it starts.
The aforementioned Gator duo gives Florida one of the top middle pairs in the country. Alhassan, the 2017 SEC player of the year, leads the country in blocks at 1.74 per set and is hitting .423 this season. She led Florida with 17 kills and hit .517 in the semifinal win over Stanford. Alhassan can get up so high that, with a good set, no one’s block is touching her. Sophomore Kramer isn’t the athlete Alhassan is, but she doesn’t need to be: She’s 6-8. Kramer had 20 kills on 28 attacks in Florida’s August win over the Huskers.
THE LATE BLOOMERS
Florida opposite hitter Shainah Joseph bounced around to three positions during her career, finally settling in at right side as a redshirt senior. A member of the Canadian National Team, Joseph is hitting .366 this year and had 11 kills in the semifinal win over Stanford. She gives Florida a pair of second-team All-America pin hitters, joining Carli Snyder. Her Nebraska counterpart is Annika Albrecht, whose turn from three-year defensive specialist to second-team All-America outside hitter is one of the season’s best stories. Albrecht put away all three of her swings in the fifth set against Penn State to finish with 13 kills. NU will need her to be more efficient against the Gators than she was in August, when she hit .085 on 47 swings.
Florida’s Caroline Knop started her college career as an outside hitter at Michigan, but since coming to Gainesville, she’s become one of the country’s best liberos. Knop out-dueled Stanford All-America libero Morgan Hentz in the semifinals and had 20 digs. You’ll recognize her also by her headband. Nebraska’s Kenzie Maloney will need to make sure the Huskers get at least a stalemate out of the position. The junior from Louisville, Kentucky, was outstanding in the win over Penn State with 21 digs and four aces. Maloney has been the Huskers’ best server in the NCAA tournament. Her 12 aces during the postseason tie a school record.
Kelly Hunter’s defense may have outshone her distribution against Penn State. The Huskers set their block up inside against All-American Simone Lee, trusting Hunter to handle digging any shot down the line. Hunter absorbed some rockets from Penn State and had a career-high 23 digs. NU would probably like to get some offense out of her as well when she’s in her three front-row rotations. Florida’s 6-2 attack means neither 5-9 Allie Monserez nor 6-2 Cheyenne Huskey will probably be attacking much, but they’ve set the Gators to .283 hitting this season. That ranks No. 13 in the country, one spot ahead of Nebraska. Huskey’s size makes her a good net defender; she ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in blocks. This is only her second season as a setter.
THE BIG HITTERS
Mikaela Foecke lives for the big stage. In four career matches in the final four, the Husker junior is hitting .320 and has averaged 4.2 kills per set. She has 37 kills over NU’s last two matches and put down 18 kills in the first meeting with Florida in August. Foecke’s back-row defending will be key. The Gators’ hitters can get shots over and around a block. Foecke may need to come close to the career-best 19 digs she put up Thursday for the Huskers to slow Florida’s attack. Snyder is one of the nation’s best all-around players. She leads the Gators in kills (3.44 per set) and is second in digs (3.31 per set). Nebraska’s passers will need to solve Snyder’s vicious jump serve that has led to 53 aces, tops in the SEC. She had three aces Thursday against Stanford to go along with 16 kills and nine digs.
Nebraska certainly will have the crowd advantage Saturday. Husker fans turned the Power and Light district into the Railyard South to help set an NCAA attendance record Thursday. The Gators have not had to play in front of a hostile crowd yet this postseason, earning a final four berth at home. The crowd Thursday had thinned by the time Florida met Stanford. It will not be thin Saturday. Both teams are led by long-time coaches who recently earned big accolades. Mary Wise, who was hired as Iowa State’s coach when she was 21 years old, is now in her 27th year at Florida. Thursday, she was named the national coach of the year for the third time in her career (2017, 1996, 1992). If the Gators win, she’ll be the first female head coach to lead her team to an NCAA title. John Cook has guided the Huskers to three NCAA titles already, and a fourth Saturday would be a fitting conclusion to a year in which he was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame. The Huskers have experience on this stage, playing in their third final four. Will this group of Gators have butterflies playing in their first NCAA final? Florida last reached the title match in 2003, losing to Southern California.
FLORIDA WILL WIN IF …
Knop has an outstanding night in the back row both with floor defense and serve receive. If Florida can get the ball close to Monserez and Huskey, the Gators’ athleticism both on the pins and in the middle could turn Nebraska’s back court into a shooting gallery.
NEBRASKA WILL WIN IF …
The Huskers’ supporting cast shows up as it did against Penn State. Albrecht and freshman Jazz Sweet will need to take smart swings against Florida’s block. The Huskers’ hitters sometimes have a tendency to be too confident in their ability to beat blockers. If those two start hot, it’s a great sign for Nebraska. Penn State picked on Sydney Townsend and Foecke in serve receive Thursday, a strategy Florida will probably copy. If the passers get Hunter in system, she can get NU’s middles involved. Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins combined for 20 kills against the Nittany Lions. One of them will probably need a big night Saturday.
Husker Nation travels en masse to Kansas City
Nebraska fans made the Sprint Center feel like home Thursday night as the Huskers rallied to eliminate No. 1 Penn State in their NCAA tournament semifinal match.
Except for pockets of lower-level seats reserved for fans of the other three semifinalists, most of the other sections on all three levels were filled with Nebraska fans.
Junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said Friday nothing Husker volleyball fans do surprises her. She also said showing up strong for events such as this is noticed by everyone in the program.
“They amaze me every time we run onto the court,” Foecke said. “Be it in Devaney or here, I mean, when you go out on Devaney, I still get the chills every single time we’re running out because it’s so loud.
“But coming out here, it’s something on a whole other level. There were 18,000 fans here last night. That’s insane; it’s a volleyball game. I’m sure three-fourths of them are Husker fans, and I’m sure that tomorrow night it will be even more.”
More seats are expected to be available as Penn State and Stanford fans may decide not to attend Saturday’s 8 p.m. championship match because their teams have been eiminated.
“I think that Husker Nation is going to come out stronger than ever,” Foecke said. “It’s not every year that you have a team in the national championship. Two in the past three years is something special.”
Gators ready for hostile crowd
Florida players aren’t taking a negative view of what likely will feel like a road game atmosphere.
“I think it’s a championship match, and there’s nothing about it that we want to be easy,” Gators outside hitter Carli Snyder said. “It’s so cool that we do get to play in front of a loud crowd, even if it is going against us.
“To have this match be such an exciting moment for volleyball, where there are so many people tuning in and so many people coming out to see great volleyball, I think that’s something we really are embracing. It’s going to be so much fun.”
Middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan said playing before a crowd of this size isn’t something the Gators have ever experienced.
“I don’t think any single one of us has ever done (this), and I think we’re all looking forward to it,” Alhassan said. “There is no reason to look at it as a negative thing just because we’re here; we made it here.
“That’s what we wanted. We wanted to play in front of this many people, and I think we’re really looking forward to it.”
Husker freshmen growing up
Key contributions from freshmen like Lauren Stivrins, Hunter Atherton and Jazz Sweet have been valuable all season, but even more so in Nebraska’s five NCAA tournament victories.
“I think they’ve settled in and they know their roles and they embrace it,” Foecke said. “They take advantage of every opportunity they have to get us a point.”
Foecke said she and her teammates don’t even think of that group as freshmen because of how much progress they’ve made through 35 matches.
“Honestly, I didn’t think they seemed like freshmen at the beginning of the year,” Foecke said. “They just came in and embraced it from the very beginning. I think all of us were, I don’t know if you’d say jittery, at the beginning of the season.
“Maybe just didn’t know exactly what our role was or where we were going to fit in on this team. Now we’ve just settled in and play as one unit.”
Huskers servers are aces
Nebraska’s 10 aces against Penn State marked the first time since 1997 that a team recorded double digit aces in either an NCAA semifinal or final. Stanford had 10 aces against Long Beach State in a ’97 semifinal.
It was just the third time a team has recorded double-digit aces in an NCAA semifinal or final since 1989. Those 10 aces were an NCAA record in the rally scoring era (since 2001).
Junior Kenzie Maloney led the Huskers with four aces, while Annika Albrecht and Hunter Atherton had two apiece.
Milestone in reach for Hunter
Husker senior setter Kelly Hunter has 173 assists in four career matches in the NCAA championship semifinals and finals. Only 10 players in NCAA history have recorded 200 career assists in the final four, and Hunter would be the first Nebraska player to reach that milestone.
NU sets points records
Nebraska scored 115 points Thursday night against Penn State, the most points ever in an NCAA final four match in the 25-point rally scoring era that began in 1998.
The previous record was 107 points by the Nittany Lions in the 2009 championship match.
National Championship: #5 Nebraska vs. #2 Florida
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM, ncn21.com