LINCOLN — For seniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, their first three seasons with the Nebraska volleyball team have ended at the final four. Twice, they’ve helped guide the Huskers to the NCAA championship, and they’ve added a pair of Big Ten title rings to boot.
So when they were asked at the Huskers’ annual preseason media day Tuesday what’s left to accomplish, their answer, simply, was “more.”
“Win another natty,” Maloney said.
“I mean, back to back. Nebraska’s never done that,” Foecke said. “Obviously we want to repeat our title.”
The first lesson the Huskers’ captains wanted to impart on the biggest group of newcomers in program history is that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.
However, they acknowledged that the journey to a fourth straight final four started awhile ago. With eight new players joining the roster for 2018 — five freshmen and three transfers — the team needed to understand the culture that has formed the foundation of the best run in program history.
“We presented the challenges for (the captains) in the spring of what this was going to be about: how many freshmen were coming in, how many new players,” coach John Cook said.
“They’ve had meetings all summer, and they’ve been pulling these kids together and building around these relationships I’ve talked about.”
What emerged was the slogan: “This, we will defend.” A credo not specific to repeating as national champions, but to passing along to new teammates that the trophies they’ve acquired don’t come without relentlessly focusing on excellence in practice, in meetings and in the bonds built off the court.
“We’re kind of just defending the whole culture of Nebraska and what all makes Nebraska volleyball,” said Maloney, NU’s senior libero. “Talking on every play, going after every ball, hustling, all that stuff. Working hard, being on time. Making sure we’re fulfilling all those things.”
The Huskers return four starters from the 2017 title club, but will likely need to rely on newcomers at three positions. At outside hitter, Texas transfer Lexi Sun, an All-Big 12 performer last year, will replace Annika Albrecht and join Foecke to give the Huskers a pair of pin hitters with All-America potential.
Redshirt sophomore Lauren Stivrins returns as one starting middle blocker, but the late-summer departure of Chesney McClellan leaves a question mark at the other middle spot. Six-foot-five freshman Callie Schwarzenbach of Kearney, Missouri, the nation’s No. 10 recruit according to PrepVolleyball.com, will compete to start right away, and Cook said he will pick one player from a group of pin hitters — sophomore Sami Slaughter, sophomore Anezka Szabo and freshman Capri Davis of Mansfield, Texas — to train at middle blocker to provide depth.
If Szabo makes the move, it would test Nebraska’s depth at opposite hitter. Sophomore Jazz Sweet is the returning starter on the right side, and Cook is asking her to build on a promising freshman campaign by playing all six rotations.
“It’s one thing to be a hitter and blocker in the front row. It’s a whole different ballgame to play six rotations,” Cook said. “We’ve been working with her on that since January and the mindset that goes with that. She’s worked really hard. You’ll look at her and see a difference.”
A pair of new faces will join Maloney as back row specialists in freshmen Megan Miller and Chen Abramovich.
But the biggest focus of preseason practices, which begin Wednesday with two workouts, will be at setter. Freshman Nicklin Hames of Knoxville, Tennessee, the nation’s highest-rated setter recruit, arrived in Lincoln as the heir apparent to All-American Kelly Hunter but will compete against two upperclassmen.
The newest Husker, Mari Kurkova, just arrived in Lincoln last week from the Czech Republic, a country she’s represented at the international level. The graduate transfer will have two seasons of eligibility. Brooke Smith, who recently returned to the team after playing last season at Kansas State, will likely be a back row and serving specialist while serving as another setter option.
It will be the first time since 2013 that Nebraska has had a setter competition going into the season.
“Let’s let them battle it out because I think competition will bring out the best in them and prepare them for what we see in the Big Ten and the (NCAA tournament) and down the road,” Cook said. “I’m excited to see what shakes out. I think it’ll be some really good competition.”
The tension of competing for an individual spot has to have a balance, Cook knows. Tuesday he unveiled another of the team’s mantras, “We over me,” a part of the culture he’s now trusting to what he once considered to be an unlikely pair of captains in Maloney and Foecke.
“It’s definitely a family feel here,” Foecke said. “Everybody knows what’s welcome and what’s expected. I think that makes it a lot easier for freshmen coming in, transfers coming in, just anyone.”
Cook had concerns about whether NU would be able to replace the leadership of its four departed 2017 seniors, including Hunter, a three-year captain. Foecke was happy go lucky, polite almost to a fault, deferring accountability to older players. Maloney earned her nickname “Pip” from Cook as a pipsqueak freshman, quiet as a church mouse.
Cook’s hesitations were soothed in the spring and summer when he saw the two seniors take charge instilling expectations while making newcomers feel welcome.
Maloney said the captains initially worried about team bonding feeling forced, but the team’s get-togethers, which included movie nights, board games and a Kesha concert in June to celebrate Szabo’s birthday, were joined enthusiastically.
With their senior success reliant on so many new faces, there wasn’t a moment they could waste in making everyone familiar.
“We have a great group of girls,” Maloney said. “It’s a young team, but everyone has really filled their role really well so far, from what we’ve seen. We’re just super excited to see it in action and play six on six again, finally, and see how everybody meshes on the court.”
Husker volleyball earns 20 first-place votes, No. 2 ranking in preseason poll
After earning the program’s fifth national championship, the Nebraska volleyball team will open the season ranked second in the AVCA Preseason Coaches Poll, which was released on Wednesday.
The Huskers received 20 of the 63 first-place votes and totaled 1,525 points. Stanford, which received 43 first-place votes, took the No. 1 ranking with 1,575 points. Texas (1,389), Minnesota (1,342) and Kentucky (1,260) rounded out the top five.
Other Big Ten teams in the top 10 included No. 6 Penn State and No. 9 Wisconsin. No. 13 Creighton earned the second-highest preseason ranking in program history.
The defending NCAA and Big Ten champs Huskers return four starters from the 2017 title club, while eight of the 15 Huskers are newcomers. Nebraska will be replacing Kelly Hunter, Annika Albrecht, Briana Holman and Sydney Townsend.
The Huskers have eight new players joining the roster for 2018, including Texas transfer Lexi Sun, an All-Big 12 performer last year.
NU opened practice on Tuesday and will begin the season with the Red/White scrimmage on Aug. 18 at 3 p.m.