MINNEAPOLIS — In their role as co-captains, Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney have kept their teammates focused on the day-to-day master plan for a successful Nebraska volleyball season.
From the “We over Me” T-shirts, to relationship-building time in the summer, to relentless energy in practice and games, the way those two seniors have guided this young Nebraska team to another NCAA regional semifinal hasn’t left much time for self-reflection.
As the clock winds down on their decorated careers — two national championships and the current pursuit of a third — Foecke and Maloney do realize they are, at most, four matches away from becoming former Huskers.
“We’ve definitely both thought about it,” Maloney said. “Right now we’re more focused on the games ahead of us and the last four games that we need to finish so that we can end our careers here on a high note.”
The next step in defense of their NCAA national championship comes Friday at 1 p.m. when the No. 6-ranked Huskers meet No. 10 Kentucky at Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion in the Minneapolis Regional semifinals.
No. 2 Minnesota and No. 15 Oregon will square off at approximately 3:30 p.m. in the other semifinal. Friday’s winners will play in the regional final at 5 p.m. Saturday for a berth in the final four at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Maloney said there’s something much bigger at stake these final two weeks of this postseason than making sure she and Foecke finish their careers with confetti covering the floor of the Target Center.
“Also just winning a championship for the younger players because then they’re going to realize what it means to win a championship at Nebraska,” Maloney said. “They’ll be able to carry on that legacy and keep passing it down to newcomers coming in.”
Nebraska coach John Cook said Maloney and Foecke have been asked to do more than any other group of captains in his 19 seasons as the Huskers’ head man. With eight of the 15 players being new to Nebraska volleyball this season, the leadership the two seniors provided was crucial.
“Mikaela and Kenzie, as senior captains, have had a bigger responsibility than any captains we’ve ever had at Nebraska in that we had so many new people,” Cook said. “There was just a big learning curve with how we do things at Nebraska. How we train, our drills, our traditions and so on.
“So they did an amazing job of holding this whole thing together and keeping everybody moving.”
During Thursday’s post-practice press conference, Cook was asked if he’s seen any change this season in how the Husker captains have approached the added responsibility.
“No, they’ve been like this for four years,” Cook said. “They bring it every day, they’re super-focused, super hard-working, and they have very high expectations. This is the way these guys roll. That’s why they’ve been so successful.”
Nebraska and Kentucky are becoming familiar foes deep into the postseason.
Last season, the Huskers secured their final four berth with a four-set victory over the Wildcats in Lexington. Foecke led the way with 18 kills on .375 hitting.
Coach Craig Skinner is in his 14th season at Kentucky after a turn as an assistant coach at Nebraska under Cook. After losing to the Huskers a year ago, Skinner has a good idea what’s in store Friday, especially with Maloney and Foecke.
“Two very good players at their positions,” Skinner said. “Obviously familiar with Kenzie, she’s from Kentucky. Saw her grow up and play, very skilled and talented athlete. She’s done a great job filling in at libero the last couple years.”
“Mikaela Foecke is one of the best players in the country and has proven it year in, year out. I like the way they play the game. They play it the right way, they’re passionate about it and they play hard.”
Skinner said the depth of Nebraska’s front line, especially when Foecke and sophomore Lexi Sun are on the court at the same time, makes the Huskers tough to defend.
“Their left sides are athletic and terminate the ball really well,” Skinner said. “Their middles are young but athletic and do a really nice job. They’re standard Nebraska volleyball even since I’ve been there. They’re good at blocking and defense.”
Defense is one of those facets of the game where Cook said the Huskers are playing better this season than they did last year and even the 2015 national championship season.
“In some areas it’s better,” Cook said. “We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the country, we led the (Big Ten) conference in blocking, we led the conference in lowest attack efficiency. We held a lot of teams under .200. The biggest thing is, can we side out consistently, and that’s a work in progress with a freshman setter (Nicklin Hames).”
Nebraska leads the nation in opponent hitting percentage at .132, the program’s best mark since holding foes to .126 in 2005. The Huskers also are 12th nationally in blocks per set (2.82) and aces per set (1.70).
Foecke said the Huskers are looking to keep building on those numbers this weekend one match at a time.
“When the tournament hits, there’s always a sense of urgency that maybe wasn’t there during the middle of the season,” Foecke said. “You want to take it point for point and game by game, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Nebraska volleyball able to watch Husker men’s hoops during Minnesota stay
MINNEAPOLIS — On Wednesday night, the Nebraska volleyball team went to the Nebraska-Minnesota men’s basketball game at Williams Arena. The arena is connected to Maturi Pavilion, where the Huskers will play in the NCAA regional Friday. Outside hitter Mikaela Foecke joked with Nebraska coach John Cook at Thursday’s press conference about his ability to get the team such good seats.
Foecke also noted that the Huskers were leading that game, which they eventually lost by seven points, when she and her teammates left to get back to the team hotel.
It was the first time that either Foecke or fellow senior Kenzie Maloney could remember being in the same city as another Nebraska team that they could go watch compete. Cook said the Huskers played at Notre Dame on Sept. 9, 2000, the same day that Nebraska football team defeated the Fighting Irish 27-24 in overtime in South Bend.
Cook laughed and said Notre Dame officials scheduled the volleyball game to start during the football game because they were afraid 10,000 Husker fans would show up and fill the Joyce Center, much the way NU fans took over Notre Dame Stadium for the football game.
The match, which Nebraska won 15-3, 15-9, 15-12 in the days before rally scoring, still attracted a crowd of 3,102.
Run-in at practice
Co-captains Maloney and Foecke have worked in tandem to lead the team to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament for the 24th time in 25 seasons.
They never butted heads about anything this season until Thursday, and it wasn’t because they were arguing about something.
During one of the drills the coaching staff was putting the players through during NU’s 90-minute practice session at Maturi Pavilion, Foecke and Maloney ran into each other. Foecke got the worst of it, as Maloney’s head caught Foecke on her left cheekbone.
It didn’t take long for Foecke to bounce back; she didn’t miss her next turn in the receiving drill.
Banner season for Gophers
After winning their third Big Ten Conference championship last month, it didn’t take long for the Gophers to celebrate the accomplishment.
2018 was already added to the championship banner hanging from the Maturi Pavilion rafters. The Gophers’ other conference championships listed on the banner were 2002 and 2015.
NCAA Sweet 16: Nebraska vs. Kentucky
When: 12:30 p.m. Friday
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM