Photo by Pat Radigan
Story by Becca Mann
A “reinvention” of the Huskers volleyball program ended with Nebraska cutting down the nets in Kansas City
At the beginning of 2017, it seemed like a rebuilding year was in the cards for the Nebraska volleyball team.
The Huskers were coming off a 3-0 sweeping loss by Texas in the NCAA National Semifinals and returned empty handed to Lincoln following a 31-3 overall, 18-2 Big Ten season.
At the end of 2016, Both of Nebraska’s assistant coaches, Dani Busboom Kelly (Louisville) and Chris Tamas (Illinois), left Nebraska to head up programs of their own. Four seniors graduated from the program, including transfer Andie Malloy and powerhouse All-Americans Amber and Kadie Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes.
The term ‘rebuilding’ wasn’t used negatively about Nebraska, but seemed an appropriate way to interpret the preseason mantra of “reinvent,” especially when you break down what it was facing.
Nebraska coach John Cook was working with a team that had six returning members from the 2015 national title team, alongside six players who had yet to record playing time at Nebraska, including redshirt freshmen Hunter Atherton and Lauren Stivrins.
They struggled through injuries and took a 6-3 start to the season with back-to-back losses against Oregon and Florida and a loss in September to Northern Iowa.
With everything on its plate, it seemed like NU had no other option but to rebuild. And that meant rebuilding a program that had earned the No. 1 seed in previous NCAA tournament. Rebuild a program that went 26-2 in the regular season and won the outright Big Ten title.
And most importantly, rebuild a team that had won a title, then reached the national semifinals a year later.
A Year to Remember
Nebraska volleyball made it back-to-back Big Ten titles, and claimed the fifth national title in school history to finish the season with a 32-4 record overall.
- The Huskers went 19-1 in Big Ten action, including a sweep of Penn State on the road, to split the conference crown with the Nittany Lions.
- Nebraska then beat top-seeded Penn State in the national semifinals, making NU the only team to beat PSU (33-2) on the year.
- In the national title match, Nebraska avenged an opening weekend loss to Florida, and handed the No. 2 seeded Gators their second loss of the year, too. Florida’s other loss came to the Kentucky, who fifth-seeded Nebraska knocked off in the Elite Eight in Lexington.
Even Nebraska’s new athletic director, Bill Moos, who stepped into his position midway through Cook’s season, agreed.
“This was not expected to happen by a lot of people this year,” he said.
Labeling the season as a rebuilding year wasn’t done negatively in regards to the program. And it wasn’t created in spite. However, what it did do was create a fire inside a team that wasn’t willing to settle for mediocrity just because the odds didn’t seem in their favor.
Each year at the beginning of the season the team develops a mantra that defines the groups goals and to stand by through ups and downs. In 2015 it was “Dream Big” in 2016, “Dream Bigger.”
Using the opinions of fans, the media and teams around them, the 2017 team developed the motto “Why Not Us?” to tackle a year that shouldn’t have gone their way. But it was just that, the low expectations of those around them, that pushed Nebraska to greatness.
“What this team taught me is that the power of the belief of a group when they all bought in, and they came up with, ‘With each other, for each other.’ I think it’s the most powerful thing,” Cook said. “The day they presented that, it was one of the greatest coaching moments of my life and coaching career seeing what they came up with. What they wanted to be about. It was a reinvent of our program, and then, why not us?”
On their way to the Final Four, the Huskers dropped just one set in NCAA play, and allowed just 221 points, the fewest of any team in the tournament. Against Penn State on Thursday, it took a bit more, taking down the Big Ten rivals in five sets over a record setting 2 hour and 51 minute match.
Saturday night in the national final, there was little question as the group proved once and for all why it was silly to ever think of this year as a “rebuilding” campaign.
Nebraska, which entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed, took down No. 2 Florida in four sets while recording a .234 hitting percentage on the night while outhitting the Gators 56-42.
Junior Mikaela Foecke led the team with 20 kills on 56 swings while hitting .250 to earn Co-Most Outstanding Player alongside setter Kelly Hunter. In her fifth year at Nebraska, Hunter was key to the team’s senior leadership. The senior recorded 37 assists and notched six kills on 10 swings.
Hunter spoke throughout the tournament about the term rebuilding as it came to culmination at the end of Saturday night.
“At the beginning of the year, we thought that about ourselves too,” Hunter said. “But we just grinded and had a lot of stuff to work out with new coaches, new players. [We said] You know what, let’s reinvent the culture, let’s reinvent what we have here at Nebraska volleyball.
“We worked super hard at that during the summer. All throughout the preseason we were figuring out who we are, and opening up the Big Ten, I think we saw who we could be. When we’re playing our good volleyball, no one can beat us, so we were just focused on our side no matter what happened, and no matter what the seeds were or anything like that, we played Nebraska volleyball, and it took us all the way to the National Championship and to a win.”
Cook said Saturday that the last time NU won a national championship, he was working with a group that had more talent, but the one he had in 2017 had an ability to play hard for each other and push each other along the way.
At the end of it, there was reason to call this Husker season a ‘rebuilding year.’ This year’s Huskers just made sure it dismissed each and every one of those reasons with it’s on court play, and walked away with the ultimate prize: Nebraska’s fifth title in program history, fourth under Cook and for the first time, and the second for six of the players.
What was left was a special team, and that’s something fans, the media, the team, and even the critics, can agree on.
“When you have teams like this, you’ve got to enjoy every moment,” Cook said. “That’s what everybody I surround myself with kept telling me. You’ve got to enjoy this team every moment. Their quirks, they’re fun, they mess around, they play practical jokes, but they know how to win and they play great together. It’s just been, like I said, really fun and rewarding. I don’t know how to put it in words. I will at some point.”