Photo by Pat Radigan
25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16
Foecke – 20
Holman – 3.0
Maloney – 15
Story by Pat Radigan
Foecke and Hunter split Most Outstanding Player honors
Florida found enough of a groove to take a set off of No. 5 Nebraska, yet there was never a feeling that the second-ranked Gators really threatened the “home” team as the Huskers ran away with their fifth title in school history.
Nebraska cruised to a 2-0 lead, then ran off a 25-16 win in the fourth set to put the final touches on an improbable second title for a team that lost four senior starters from last years Final Four team. But like they’ve done all year long, Nebraska shut out the noise of a “rebuilding” year, and neutralized Florida’s All-American front line with aggressive serving and enough offense to finish the year with a title win for the second time in three seasons.
Mikaela Foecke blasted her way to a share of the Most Outstanding Player honor with 20 kills and 14 digs. Foecke was the MOP in NU’s 2015 title win, and split the award with senior setter Kelly Hunter, who mimicked her effort from the semifinal win over Penn State and did a little bit of everything to keep the Gators guessing.
Hunter finished with 37 assists and 8 digs, and also added 6 kills on 10 swings to fill the stat sheet in her final collegiate match. The last kill came in the fourth set, and gave Nebraska a match point at 24-15, when Hunter masterfully tipped a ball over the block and just inside the back line, and sent the 18,516 fans at Sprint Center into a frenzy with NU a point from the title.
Foecke delivered the final blow two points later, when a swing clipped off the top of the Florida block and sailed over the end line.
“Winning a National Championship seems like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so to be here a second time is something that I’m super grateful for,” Foecke said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to be the most outstanding player other than Kelly. She’s the most deserving person on our team. She works so hard every single day, and she’s such a great leader and mentor to all of us.”
That leadership showed up early when Hunter helped the Huskers flip a 15-11 Florida lead with a 7-0 run from the line. Hunter’s serving broke Florida’s rhythm, and forced three errors and allowed Foecke to get a kill, before an ace from Hunter put Nebraska up 17-15. Foecke added another kill to cap the run, and it gave NU just enough breathing room to hold on for a 1-0 edge early.
Nebraska hit just .081 in the first frame, yet was able to survive by holding Florida to .025 as the Gators racked up 9 errors with only 10 kills in the set.
The second set did not include as dramatic of a run, but instead saw Nebraska pull off a trio of 3-0 spurts to take a 16-9 lead on a Florida hitting error. A Shainah Joseph kill allowed Florida to get a side out on Hunter’s first service attempt of the second set, with Hunter able to get a sliver of retribution when she served NU to a point on the Huskers’ first look at a set point in the second.
After struggling to find a footing against Nebraska’s defense, Florida came alive after the intermission. The Gators committed just two errors, rattled off 14 kills and forced 8 errors by the Huskers to kill off any hope of a sweep for Nebraska. Florida was able to keep Nebraska from a first-ball side out on 8 of the 13 rotations in the set, and that ability to run points kept NU from applying any real pressure in the set.
With the pro-Husker crowd getting back into the match, Nebraska turned things around in a hurry to start the fourth.
Kenzie Maloney started the set by serving four straight, with Hunter getting back to her first-set groove to key a 5-0 run and push the Nebraska lead to 9-1. Florida then found a bit of a footing. It wasn’t enough.
A 4-0 run by Florida drew a timeout from NU coach John Cook. Three plays later, though, a Maloney ace made it 17-10 to put the Huskers on the verge. Fellow senior Annika Albrecht served back-to-back points to bring NU to match point, and assisted Hunter’s kill late in the match in a senior-to-senior setup.
Hunter’s .600 hitting percentage wound up being tops on the team, with another senior, middle blocker Briana Holman, just behind Hunter with a .417 hitting mark on her 7 kills. Holman also assisted on 6 of Nebraska’s 7 blocks in the match, all on the same day she became a first-generation college graduate.
Nebraska’s other senior starter, defensive specialist Sydney Townsend, added 11 digs and 4 assists to the win.
Redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins chipped in 9 kills to combine with Holman on an efficient night for NU’s middles. It was also a strangely efficient night for Maloney in attacking terms, as NU’s libero added a pair of kills after having just one all season coming into the match.
For Cook, nothing surprised him about this team, especially the seniors, as Nebraska took it’s “with each other, for each other” motto all the way to a national title.
“I’ve had so much fun coaching this year, and you follow us, and I know I keep talking about that,” he said. “but it’s such a fun group to be around. It’s way different than what I’m used to. They’re loose, they’re fun. You saw in the end, they’re trying to dump the Powerade thing on me, and it’s like this all the time.
“I don’t know how to put it in words. I will at some point.”
In true team-first fashion, Foecke and Hunter split the MOP honor, and were joined on the All-Final Four team by Maloney.
And while the impressive hitting numbers, individually for Foecke and as a team for Hunter, helped propel those two to their honors, Maloney’s inclusion was indicative of how Nebraska got to the title game to begin with. In Cook’s eyes, it wasn’t just coach speak: Defense won this title for the Huskers.
“We told them in the beginning of the year, the first goal we wrote on our white board was if we want to win the Big Ten, that’s where we start,” Cook said. “We have to be the best defensive team in the conference. So we have to develop this mindset of how we’re going to play… I knew that was our only chance.
“These guys really embraced it. Defense is a mindset, you know. In any sport, it’s a mindset. These guys have a really strong mindset.”