Early-season matches prepared Nebraska volleyball for another final four run

Early-season matches prepared Nebraska volleyball for another final four run
The Huskers had to go on the road to reach their third straight final four, but they were battle-tested from big early-season matchups. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — A valiant early-season loss. An eye-opening weekend sweep. A delirious comeback. A pair of statement triumphs on the road.

To make it from Lincoln to Kansas City, you only need to make one right turn a few miles east of Nebraska City, but Nebraska’s trip to the final four was a circuitous route that put them against seven teams in the regular season that would make it at least as far as the round of 16.

That was before the NCAA tournament selection committee sent the Big Ten champions on the road in the postseason.

Along the way, a team with just two starters returning to their accustomed roles coalesced into a unit that would make history by reaching the Huskers’ third straight final four.

Here are the five(-ish) matches that defined Nebraska’s season.

No. 12 Florida def. No. 5 Nebraska

3-2, Aug. 26 (Gainesville, Florida)

Though Florida fans would rightly tell you the season-opening VERT Challenge portended the Gators’ SEC championship and their first trip to the final four since 2003, it also gave Nebraska coach John Cook reasons to hope his young Huskers were better than their 0-2 start would indicate.

Playing without injured setter Kelly Hunter, the Huskers won the first and third sets, but couldn’t slow Florida’s 6-foot-8 sophomore Rachael Kramer, who had 20 kills and hit .679.

The fifth set got away from Nebraska quickly, with Florida All-American outside hitter Carli Snyder serving the Gators to a 5-0 lead. NU would get as close as 13-10 before Kramer scored the Gators’ final two kills to cap a dynamite opening weekend for Florida, which had beaten preseason No. 1 Texas the previous day.

Junior Mikaela Foecke had 18 kills, and freshman opposite hitter Jazz Sweet gave a sign of her potential with 16 kills.

“We had a chance to be really good, that’s what I took from that,” Cook said last week, reflecting on the opening weekend. “We played some really good volleyball. Just Kelly didn’t play, and we weren’t quite solid enough to win the close games. We had a lot of close games, but I knew after that weekend we had a chance to be really good. Sometimes, you learn more in losing than you do in winning.”

No. 12 Nebraska def. No. 11 UCLA

3-0 (twice), Sept. 8-9 (Devaney Center)

This was two separate matches, but Nebraska humbled UCLA on back-to-back September nights at the Devaney Center.

Hunter had returned from her injury the week before at the Ameritas Players Challenge, but played only three rotations as the Huskers ran a 6-2 with Hunter and redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton splitting the setting duties.

Against the Bruins, which would reach the round of 16 before bowing out to Florida, Nebraska would put on a pair of dominant performances.

“If you’d asked me two days ago if we’d beat these guys 3-0, 3-0, I would’ve never believed it,” Cook said. “Our team, I thought not only did we play well (Friday) night, but we took it up another notch (Saturday).”

Foecke and Annika Albrecht each had double-doubles in the first match, and in the rematch the next night, the Huskers hit .301 led by 12 kills from Foecke. Sweet hit .529 with 10 kills, and NU sided out at 71 percent.

The weekend also showed the Huskers’ growing defensive prowess as Nebraska held the Bruins to a .114 attack percentage over the two matches. Nebraska would go on to lead the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage (.151).

No. 14 Nebraska def. No. 2 Penn State

3-0, Sept. 22 (University Park, Pennsylvania)

Six days before Nebraska took the court at unbeaten Penn State (10-0), the Huskers looked sleepy in a 3-1 loss to Northern Iowa at the Omaha Challenge at Baxter Arena. That night, Nebraska’s bounce-back win over UNO was soured when senior middle blocker Briana Holman left with an ankle injury that put her status against Penn State in doubt.

Safe to say, no one saw the Huskers’ 26-24, 25-19, 25-20 win coming. It was the first time anyone had swept the Nittany Lions at Rec Hall in 14 years. It also silenced any remaining doubts that, in what was at first considered a rebuilding year, Nebraska could build something special.

“When we kicked Penn State’s butt, I think a lot of us were like, ‘Oh my God, we can be really good,’ ” Holman said before the start of the NCAA tournament. “Just watching film and looking back at the old games and looking how we played in comparison to now, this team continues to get better every week, and it’s so awesome to see.”

Holman had practiced lightly that week, but pestered Cook to be added to the starting lineup. Her first nine swings went for kills, and she finished with 13 on 16 attempts.

Albrecht’s career-high 19 kills led the way on a night Nebraska hit .347, and the Huskers held the nation’s top-hitting team to .227 more than 100 points below their NCAA-best average of .345.

Big Ten player of the year Simone Lee had 15 kills for Penn State, but Nebraska’s tough serving allowed the Nittany Lions to set All-American middle blocker Haleigh Washington only 15 times.

No. 8 Nebraska def. No. 7 Wisconsin

3-2, Sept. 30 (Devaney Center)

The comeback capped a stretch in which the Huskers beat three top-10 teams in nine days.

Nebraska had rolled in a 3-0 sweep of No. 3 Minnesota the night before, but found themselves in an 0-2 hole against the Badgers, who hit .389 in the first set and used a 7-1 run to break an 11-11 tie in the second.

Sydney Townsend’s two aces to start the third set got Nebraska rolling, and Foecke’s two kills late in the fourth broke a 23-23 tie, the 10th deadlock of the set, to force the tiebreaker.

“In the first two sets, maybe I just didn’t have as much (confidence),” Foecke said, “and in the third set it’s like, ‘Ok, we’re either going to win this set or we’re gonna lose it, so you might as well just give it all you got.’”

Foecke finished with 15 kills, while Albrecht had 18 and Holman added 13.

Libero Kenzie Maloney served the decisive 4-0 run in the fifth that included Albrecht and redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins combining to block Wisconsin’s 6-8 freshman Dana Rettke. Albrecht would hammer down Badger overpasses on the next two rallies to put Nebraska on top 11-6, and the Huskers would close out the comeback.

Wisconsin would get revenge in a 3-1 win 11 days later in Madison to hand the Huskers their only Big Ten loss.

No. 5 Nebraska def. No. 6 Kentucky

3-1, Dec. 9 (Lexington, Kentucky)

Husker fans howled when the NCAA tournament brackets were revealed and Nebraska was not one of the top four seeds. The selection committee gave both of the co-champions of the SEC, Florida and Kentucky, the right to host, but sent the Huskers on the road to earn a trip to Kansas City.

After sweeping its first three opponents in the NCAA tournament, the Huskers faced their first real postseason test in the form of the Wildcats, who enjoyed their best season in school history under former Nebraska assistant Craig Skinner.

Kentucky had the height and athleticism to deal most teams fits and suffered just one loss all season at Memorial Coliseum, to the Gators.

Nebraska jumped on the Wildcats right away, taking the first set behind seven of Foecke’s 18 kills, and Albrecht added five kills in the second as NU hit .326 to take a 2-0 lead.

NU squandered two match points in the third before dropping the set 27-25, but showed their mettle late in the fourth. Foecke’s blast broke a 19-19 tie, and the freshman Sweet had a kill and two blocks, including a solo stuff of Kentucky’s Avery Skinner to help Nebraska pull away.

When Kentucky’s Ashley Dusek sailed a serve long to give NU the 25-22 victory, Nebraska became the only team at this year’s final four to have won a regional away from its home court.

Final Four: #5 Nebraska vs. #1 Penn State

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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