LINCOLN — There was nothing wrong with Mikaela Foecke’s career arc through her first two years in college.
As a freshman, the Nebraska outside hitter was named the final four’s Most Outstanding Player after a dominant showing in the NCAA championship match. As a sophomore, she was second on the Huskers in kills and earned honorable mention All-America honors.
But after Nebraska graduated four starters from last season’s team, Foecke and her coaches moved into Phase 2 of a long-standing plan to put even more responsibility on her shoulders. For the reigning Big Ten player of the week, little has proved too much for her to handle.
Going into Friday’s 7 p.m. home match with No. 22 Purdue (17-6, 7-5 Big Ten), Foecke is riding a streak of five straight matches with at least 13 kills. During the stretch, the junior from West Point, Iowa, is hitting .387 while averaging 3.86 kills per set.
She had a season-high 21 kills on .476 hitting when No. 7 Nebraska (18-4, 11-1) took the season’s first meeting with the Boilermakers in four sets on Oct. 14, and she needs just eight more kills to reach 1,000 for her career.
“She’s killing the ball and being low error,” NU coach John Cook said. “She’s been passing really well, serving really well. I mean, she’s developing into a six-rotation player.”
The six-rotation player is becoming a rarer breed in college volleyball. In the 1980s and ’90s, limited substitutions forced most players to play in all six rotations, meaning they had to become skilled attackers in the front row and adept passers and defenders for the three back-row stations.
But when the NCAA increased the allowable substitutions in women’s volleyball to 15 per set in Division I (smaller divisions allow even more), it ushered in an era of specialization. On many teams, taller players like the 6-foot-3 Foecke would be asked to attack and block in only the three front-row rotations, and be replaced by a smaller, quicker defensive specialist to serve and pass for the other three.
Under Cook, Nebraska has traditionally had at least one outside hitter play six rotations. Kadie Rolfzen, Kelsey Robinson, Hannah Werth and Gina Mancuso are recent examples. Cook and his predecessor, Terry Pettit, have said the increase in specialization has curtailed the development of all-around skills needed by players with professional and Olympic aspirations, where subs are limited to six per set.
“You look at a Wisconsin, you look at Florida, UCLA, they all have five or six defensive specialists because they can, because they have enough subs to use them,” said Husker assistant Kayla Banwarth, a former Olympic libero. “Fifteen subs is enough to not need a six-rotation outside. To me, that’s unfortunate. I’m not super thrilled about the way the game is going in that regard.”
It’s not just nostalgia that has pressed both Foecke and Annika Albrecht, NU’s other starting outside hitter, into all-around duty this season. The Huskers don’t carry a brigade of walk-on defensive specialists like some of their Big Ten peers. Two back-row specialists from last season, Brooke Smith and Alex Ratzlaff, transferred to new programs, leaving Nebraska short on back row depth. Senior defensive specialist Sydney Townsend comes in as a back-row sub for opposite hitter Jazz Sweet.
The moves came with some growing pains, Foecke said, as the Huskers ironed out her passing responsibilities with Townsend and new starting libero Kenzie Maloney.
“I feel like as the season goes on, I’ve just gotten more comfortable playing all the way around,” Foecke said. “That’s a lot of credit to my teammates and the coaches just getting extra reps and them talking a lot to me.”
Given the choice to serve at Maloney or Foecke, most Nebraska opponents will test the back-row newcomer. Which is why Foecke put in hours of extra passing reps in the spring and summer, practicing getting into a sturdy base position, called a “platform,” from which to absorb the shock of serves.
Earlier in the season, the new defensive responsibilities took a toll on Foecke’s hitting, Cook said. She’s had at least four hitting errors in 11 matches this season, but only one in her last six contests. In the other five, Foecke has committed no more than two errors.
“I told you it was going to be a process, but I think she now has confidence she can do all those things, and it’s not as much work mentally for her,” Cook said. “That’s why, I think, her hitting has been improving, because she’s getting more comfortable with doing those other things.”
With Foecke no longer a back-row liability and Albrecht gaining steam as an attacker, the Huskers are now a rarity among the sport’s top programs with their top two attackers playing all six rotations. This allows Nebraska a new luxury — the continual threat of a quick back-row attack, called a “bick.”
“This year we’re really trying to develop our ‘bick’ and make it a weapon all six rotations,” Foecke said. “It’s starting to really become something that teams have to look for, and you need two six-rotation outsides to do that.”
Purdue at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM
Where: Devaney Center