Second to none: Mikaela Foecke provides key offensive punch in Huskers’ national title victory

Second to none: Mikaela Foecke provides key offensive punch in Huskers’ national title victory
World-Herald News Service

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shawn Jackson always has the hottest tickets in town, and though he normally deals in football, basketball and concert passes, he recognized a money-making opportunity when he saw one.

If you found him on the corner of 13th and Oak in downtown Kansas City on Saturday night, for a couple hundred bucks, you could have convinced him to part with a ticket to watch history.

Mikaela Foecke was worth it.

In front of a sellout crowd at Sprint Center so packed with Nebraska fans you could shut your eyes and wonder when the Devaney Center got so big, Foecke’s 20 kills and 14 digs ensured the Huskers’ storybook season got the happily-ever-after everyone had driven down to see.

Nebraska’s 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16 win over No. 2-seeded Florida sent the Huskers off the confetti-cluttered court and into legend with NU’s fifth NCAA volleyball championship. An unforeseen title that cemented an unmatched legacy for Nebraska’s upperclassmen who became the first players in the program’s history ever to win two national championships.

Two years ago, Foecke’s 19 kills in the NCAA final against Texas gave her the Most Outstanding Player honor as a freshman. Saturday, Nebraska (32-4) rode Foecke’s arm for 53 swings in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 18,516 fans.

“Just looking at the paper when we walked in here, I was like ‘20 kills?’ Oh my God, I didn’t even realize it was that many,” NU setter Kelly Hunter said. “Normally we don’t have a go to, and I think it’s Foecke’s thing to step up in the tournament.”

Foecke and Hunter shared the final four’s Most Outstanding Player honor, a fitting accolade for the two Huskers who had their hands on so much of Nebraska’s success on Saturday.

“The first time I thought (winning a national championship) was extra special,” Foecke said. “Winning a national championship seems like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so being here a second time is something I’m super grateful for. I wouldn’t want anyone else to be the Most Outstanding Player other than Kelly.”

Foecke was the only Husker player to reach double-digit kills, carrying what was an NU attack that came in fits and starts. With outside hitter Annika Albrecht and opposite hitter Jazz Sweet each hitting .000 in the match, Nebraska clawed for every bit of offense and hit .234, its lowest mark during the NCAA tournament.

Foecke’s rips will be remembered, but Florida coach Mary Wise, who was attempting to become the first female coach to lead a team to an NCAA title, highlighted Hunter as the player of the match.

“If I were to choose an MVP, it would have been Kelly Hunter,” Wise said. “Mikaela has a great arm, but 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’s Carli Snyder and Shainah Joseph, both second-team All-Americans each had 11 kills to lead the Gators, but Nebraska’s defense was equal to the task needed to grind out the win. NU held Florida to a season-low .141 hitting to deny the Gators’ their first NCAA title.

The Huskers held a 65-49 advantage in digs with junior libero Kenzie Maloney’s 15 digs leading four Huskers in double figures, joining Foecke, Sydney Townsend (11), and Albrecht (11).

“I think we knew that the serve-pass game was going to be crucial in this match, and they definitely won that game tonight,” Snyder said. “It puts us in a difficult position trying to play out-of-system balls. They’re a great defensive and a great blocking team.”

Nebraska (32-4) won the first set despite hitting .081, holding the Gators to .025. NU found its rhythm in the second, hitting .417 with Foecke’s kill from the right side starting a 3-0 run to give the Huskers a 16-9 lead.

Florida punched back in Game 3, cutting into the Huskers’ lead by hitting .308. The Gators’ 6-1 run put NU in a hole they couldn’t recover from.

But the end came quickly in Game 4, fueled so often as it has this season by Nebraska’s serving. Maloney’s hot serving got the Huskers’ a 3-0 lead, and it was Hunter at the service line next to run off five points including an ace. When Briana Holman and Foecke blocked Joseph on the next rally, the Huskers led 9-1 and would never lead the finale by fewer than four points.

The day was doubly sweet for Holman, who redshirted when the Huskers won the 2015 title after transferring from LSU. The senior from DeSoto, Texas, received her college diploma earlier Saturday, with the team cheering her on during NU’s morning serve-and-pass practice.

Holman hit .417 with seven kills and added a team-best six blocks Saturday, and was overcome with emotion when coach John Cook put her in the spotlight in NU’s postgame press conference.

“It felt amazing. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and I’m the first in my immediate family to go to college,” Holman said before tears silenced any further speech.

With the title, Cook joined elite company. He became the fourth coach in NCAA history with at least four national championships, being added to the group of Penn State’s Russ Rose, former Stanford coach Don Shaw, and John Dunning who won a combined five titles with Stanford and Pacific.

Yet the group who added the latest trophy gave Cook a special kind of joy. After replacing four seniors and two assistant coaches from a year ago, this year’s Huskers drew their coaches’ praise for their hard work, chemistry, and good energy. It left him ecstatic these upperclassmen became the first players in program history with multiple titles.

“I’ve had so much fun coaching this year,” Cook said. “I keep talking about that. It’s such a fun group to be around.”

Said Hunter: “This has been my favorite group that I’ve been here. We’ve proved a lot of people wrong and we’ve grinded all season.”

When final four tickets went on sale, most of the good seats were $40. Shawn Jackson wanted to turn a reasonable profit, but he wasn’t gouging anyone for $300 a seat like he’d heard through the grapevine.

He couldn’t really understand it before the match, such a market for volleyball. “Nebraska fans make it like this,” he said.

Jackson never made it inside. He didn’t hear the roar when Foecke’s final kill caromed beyond Florida’s back row and put her team in a class alone. He didn’t see the Huskers persist through several tries to douse Cook in Gatorade.

All he needed to know was a man can make a living selling people the chance to witness something special.

“This has been an unbelievable, fun season to coach,” Cook said. “I really appreciate it. When you have teams like this, you’ve got to enjoy every moment.”

Nebraska (32-4) ………………. 25 25 18 25

Florida (30-2) ………………….. 22 17 25 16

Nebraska gets revenge on Florida in Round 2

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While the official national championship match was played Saturday night before the largest crowd to watch a college volleyball game, at least one Husker said a previous match had more of a championship feeling.

“It almost felt like the national championship game was on Thursday,” senior middle blocker Briana Holman said. “We know that we’re our biggest opponent, and when we play free and we play loose, and we play together and have fun, that’s when we play our best.”

The Huskers rallied to defeat Penn State in five sets in that semifinal to reach the final against Florida. It was the Gators who defeated Nebraska in late August in Gainesville, starting the Huskers season 0-2.

Nebraska was without senior setter Kelly Hunter that day, but the Papillion-La Vista South graduate was back for Saturday’s title game and steered the Huskers’ offense to victory with 37 set assists.

Holman said that revenge angle was a helpful one for the Huskers to have in the final match of the season.

“We were just a little more relaxed tonight,” Holman said. “We knew what we could do. We knew it was going to be a good game tonight, but we were out for revenge against these guys, so we brought it.”

A first for A.D. Moos

Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos was at Sprint Center on Saturday night to cheer on the Huskers and help celebrate the first national championship a little more than two months into his tenure.

“Good teams are a product of good, stable programs,” Moos said. “That’s what he (coach John Cook) has. This was not expected to happen by a lot of people this year, losing two assistants and two or three All-Americans.

“For him to get this group together, they’re so fun to watch. They’re winners, you saw it in this tournament.”

Moos said the Huskers “will celebrate it up right” Sunday morning back in Lincoln. He also lauded the Nebraska fans who filled at least 15,000 of the Sprint Center’s seats.

“From afar I thought it was just in football, but this volleyball thing is off the charts,” Moos said. “We packed the house at home in basketball against Kansas today too. It’s incredible, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Nebraska.”

‘Best setter in country’

If Florida coach Mary Wise had a vote for the most outstanding player, she would have given it to Hunter.

“Mikaela was really, really good tonight,” Wise said. “Her ability to terminate — if I was to choose an MVP, it would have been Kelly Hunter. Mikaela has a great arm, but Kelly, I think was the best setter in the country.

“I think on the biggest stage and on the biggest night, I think she (Hunter) was the best player on the floor.”

Maloney draws aces

Kenzie Maloney finished with 13 aces in the NCAA tournament and five in the final four. That’s a Nebraska record for a single tourney and the five in the final four is second in the 25-point scoring era (since 2008).

With a diploma and a trophy, this night was years in the making for Briana Holman

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Briana Holman kicked off her collegiate career at LSU in 2013, she had no idea a fifth season was in the cards.

Holman was first-team All-SEC and set a school record for most blocks by a freshman (200). In 2014, Holman was a first-team All-American for the Tigers, leading her team in kills (3.94) and blocks (1.47) per set.

Just more than a month later, Holman transferred to Nebraska but had to sit out 2015 because LSU wouldn’t release her from her scholarship.

That meant Holman was relegated to getting all her swings and blocks during practices. During games, she was cheering on teammates as NU rolled to its fourth national championship.

All that heartache and struggle disappeared in a shower of confetti Saturday night as Holman helped lead the Huskers to their fifth national championship with a four-set victory over Florida.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” Holman said. “God has a purpose for everything. I’m just blessed that I came here when I did. I’m really glad that I came here.

“Yeah, it was sweet winning in 2015. But being out there and participating and contributing meant a lot to me today. Especially alongside the other seniors.”

Holman led Nebraska with six blocks and hit .417 with seven kills and two errors on 12 swings. Add in two digs, and Holman joined teammate Mikaela Foecke in double figures with 10 points.

“They were definitely on me, but they were on Foecke, too,” Holman said. “We did the best that we could. I mean, it worked out.”

Becoming a national champ wasn’t the only milestone Holman achieved Saturday. While the Huskers were warming up for practice, the videoboard that hangs over midcourt suddenly popped on.

There stood University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, telling the crowd gathered for the winter graduation ceremony Saturday morning back at Pinnacle Bank Arena that Holman had earned her degree in criminology.

“I was surprised. I didn’t see that one coming,” Holman said. “I got really emotional, just because I’m the first in my immediate family to graduate (from college). I’ve been really emotional all day, and this just tops it off.”

Holman’s mother, Unique Sessions, said her daughter was in the right place Saturday with her teammates in Kansas City.

“She could always graduate,” Sessions said. “She can only get this once in a lifetime.”

Sessions said it was a fitting ending for her daughter, with whom she shared hugs after postmatch interviews and taking myriad photos before, during and after the celebration.

“I know the struggles that she and I had for her to get to here,” Sessions said. “It’s a blessing. She’s a good kid.”

Sessions knew her daughter would be good when she was a high school freshman. She used to play basketball but also made the varsity volleyball team at Cedar Hill in Texas as a freshman.

On Saturday night Holman was on collegiate volleyball’s biggest stage, a shining star who got to celebrate like she hoped she could by the time she graduated.

“We had a really special senior class this year, and we were on a mission,” Holman said. “You see where it got us.”

As NU football founders, volleyball wins fifth NCAA title, taking mantle as Big Red bell cow

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — More than 12,000 dressed in red took to their feet, seemingly most raising cellphones to record the moment.

Seconds later, Mikaela Foecke’s 20th kill of the night found the floor, and there was a dogpile of Huskers in the middle of the court. As gold confetti rained down and cheers bounced off the roof of the Sprint Center, a jubilant team of Huskers raised the NCAA volleyball championship trophy — the fifth in school history.

There’s at least one sport where the University of Nebraska’s Cornhuskers remain a true national powerhouse.

In front of an electric, record-setting crowd of 18,516 that was at least three-quarters NU fans, the Huskers dispatched Florida’s Gators 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16 to win their second national title in three years.

“There’s no place like Nebraska,” coach John Cook said afterward in tribute to the nation’s most passionate volleyball fans.

By winning their fifth NCAA title, the Huskers (32-4) equaled the number of national championship trophies won by the school’s recently downtrodden football team. It’s certainly not lost on Husker fans that this historic season came this fall as the school endured a historically awful football season — the worst in more than half a century.

Nebraskans who long for a return to gridiron glory days would see a lot in Cook’s team and program that they would recognize.

A well-coached, well-prepared team that’s consistently among the nation’s very best.

Driven, home-grown talent.

Toughness, unity of purpose and resiliency.

A fan base that travels with its team in droves.

All those things were certainly on display this weekend in Kansas City as the Huskers rallied from down 2-1 to knock off No. 1 Penn State on Thursday before ending their season on top Saturday night.

“Our volleyball program serves as the poster child for what we want to do across the board,” said Bill Moos, the Huskers’ new athletic director. “There’s consistency and stability, the feeling among those that are playing today to uphold what was accomplished before them.”

The weekend also once again proved that when it comes to volleyball, there is no fan base quite like Nebraska’s.

The crowds both nights were overwhelmingly decked out in red. Husker fans chanted “Roof, roof roof” after NU blocks and sent “Go Big Red” and “Husker Power” chants echoing through the arena. For one weekend, this was no longer the Sprint Center. It was Devaney Center South.

“It’s a home game,” said Matt Bennett, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student from Papillion. He certainly wasn’t the only one to notice.

“Husker nation is amazing,” said Annika Albrecht, a senior who transitioned this year from defensive role player to an All-American attacker. “Everyone was wearing red.”

The hordes of Husker fans who took the easy drive down I-29 were the reason the sell-out crowds in Kansas City this weekend became the two largest ever to watch an NCAA volleyball match. The previous record had been set in Omaha two years ago, when the Huskers claimed the 2015 national title in their home state.

In fact, after this weekend, the top five college volleyball crowds of all time — and nine of the top 11— all have come with the Cornhuskers on the court.

“You don’t get that anywhere else,” said Kelly Hunter, the setter from Papillion who quarterbacked the Huskers on the floor.

The red-clad volleyball fans threw a block party in downtown Kansas City this weekend, rallying in the Power and Light entertainment district outside the arena. “Just walking around, in the restaurants, you see a lot of red,” said Kathy Nelson, CEO of the Kansas City Sports Commission.

Indeed, as ecstatic as those NU fans were to be here, the only people happier may have been the proprietors of local restaurants, bars and hotels.

And the ticket-scalpers.

As with the past final fours in Omaha — which may have created America’s first-ever scalping market for volleyball tickets — there was big demand, with $37 tickets fetching $150 to $200 outside the arena. Online asking prices were as high as $500.

Underlying the fan’s passion is a lot of pride. Former Husker coach Terry Pettit built the program’s foundation, creating a state that truly loves and understands the game. They aren’t just Husker fans. Many are true Husker volleyball fans.

“The girls are just so incredible,” said Sue Carson of Omaha, a longtime volleyball season ticket-holder. “It’s like ballet with power.”

“The volleyball just sweeps you away,” said Patty Lyster of Lincoln, a 20-year season ticket-holder.

Fans take particular pride that many Husker players are Nebraska natives, girls who grew up dreaming of one day taking to the court in Lincoln. Those dreams are powerful. Nebraska produces more major college volleyball players for its size than every state but Hawaii.

This year’s roster included four Nebraskans, including Hunter, a first-team All-American. Hunter said that when her family bought last-minute, nose-bleed seats to watch the Huskers win a national championship in Omaha in 2006, she was instantly hooked.

“I said then, ‘I want to be a Husker,’ ” she said. “Being a little girl in Nebraska, that was always the dream.”

Thousands of NU fans bought their final four tickets as soon as they became available almost a year ago, betting that the Huskers were going to Kansas City.

It was a bit of a leap of faith. At the start of the season, few were predicting a Husker team that lost three senior All-Americans from a year ago would qualify for its third straight final four.

But the 2017 Huskers proved a gritty and cohesive bunch, one that rallied around a motto the players themselves came up with in preseason: With each other, for each other.

“I’m so impressed with their talent, hard work and personality,” said Cherie Teichmeier of Kearney afterward. “I’m proud of these girls and proud to be a Nebraskan.”

And in the end, these Huskers only added to Nebraska’s remarkable record of consistent success. Its fifth national title, the third-most of any school. Its 14th final four, second-most all-time. And while college basketball teams dream of making the Sweet 16, the Huskers have been among the final 16 teams standing a ridiculous 23 times in the last 24 years.

“They’re always good,” Megan Eckert of Battle Creek said during a pregame rally on a plaza outside the Sprint Center. Her husband, Justin, gave the reasons why.

“Solid, hard work and fundamentals,” he said.

It’s not lost on the Eckerts or many Husker fans that those are things the school’s once-proud football team was always known for, too.

Many are now pinning hopes on new coach Scott Frost, the quarterback of the school’s last national championship football team two decades ago, to restore such principles and return the Huskers to college football’s elite.

Carson thinks it will happen. Before heading to Kansas City, she bought a T-shirt that celebrated both the hiring of Frost and the Huskers’ latest final four trip under coach Cook. “It’s Frost-y in Nebraska, but we’re Cook’n in here,” it read.

“We’ll be back,” Carson said. “We’re coming back.”

National titles by sport

With Saturday’s win over Florida, Nebraska now has 28 team national championships:

8, Men’s Gymnastics: 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1988, 1990, 1994

7, Bowling: 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2013, 2015

5, Volleyball: 1995, 2000, 2006, 2015, 2017

5, Football: 1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997

3, Women’s track and field: 1982, 1983, 1984

Nebraska Volleyball National Championship Celebration

When: 11:20 a.m. Sunday

Where: Devaney Center, Lincoln

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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