LEXINGTON, Ky. — There were those people who called this a rebuilding year for the Nebraska volleyball team, and others the probably more appropriate transition year.
Head coach John Cook said when the season began the team would have to reinvent itself.
Whatever you want to call it, the season has a similar outcome as several of the other ones for the program: The Huskers are headed to the NCAA Final Four.
Nebraska had to travel a little farther than it hoped to Kentucky, but the final destination is what the Huskers wanted, a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, for the national semifinals. Nebraska will play Penn State on Thursday. Penn State has only lost one match this season, but it came against Nebraska.
Kentucky earned the No. 4 seed for the NCAA volleyball tournament Nebraska felt like it deserved after winning the Big Ten Conference and finishing the regular season on a 13-match winning streak. Kentucky getting the No. 4 seed meant the Huskers would have to win a regional on the Wildcats’ home court.
Nebraska’s not worried about that now, though, after bringing Kentucky’s best season to a crushing end Saturday in the Elite Eight. Nebraska took control from the start, then finished off the 25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22 victory at Memorial Coliseum.
The Nebraska program has accomplished a lot — it’s No. 1 in all-time wins and All-Americans, and has four national championships — but this group still found a way to do something that’s never been done before. For the first time, Nebraska will be going to the Final Four for a third consecutive season. Nebraska hasn’t lost in eight weeks and is on a 17-match winning streak.
The reasons the Huskers had to reinvent themselves included graduating three four-year starters, and four starters overall. The team would also add two new assistant coaches, and half the roster was redshirt freshmen or true freshmen.
Nebraska still had plenty of talent with All-American setter Kelly Hunter, and great attackers like Mikaela Foecke and Briana Holman. Then the Huskers went 2 for 2 on having success with their biggest question marks, with Annika Albrecht becoming a great outside hitter after three seasons as a defensive specialist, and Jazz Sweet giving the Huskers enough of what they needed from the right-side hitter spot.
For this group, they had just the right mix, and whole lot of teamwork, to get them back to the Final Four.
“I think this year on paper we might not be the most talented, but I think we have a lot of great talent and a lot of great hitters,” Hunter said. “But we have that team chemistry that really brings us to another level. We just go out there and we have fun, and have the mentality of point-by-point.”
Cook has coached more talented teams that didn’t get to the Final Four. Twice before he’s led Nebraska to the Final Four in consecutive seasons, but never a third.
With this team, Cook loves their leadership, their work ethic and how they’re all about the team.
“If you want to whittle it down to one thing, they have really embraced, ‘With each other, for each other,’ and that’s what makes them so powerful,” Cook said.
Foecke led the Huskers with 18 kills and a .375 hitting percentage Saturday, but it was another balanced attack. Albrecht had 14 kills, including five big ones in the final set. Holman had 11 kills and a match-high six blocks, and Sweet had 11 kills and four blocks. Kenzie Maloney had 13 of the Huskers’ 54 digs in the match.
Outside hitter Leah Edmond led Kentucky with 20 kills, but she also had 10 hitting errors and hit just. 208. Nebraska hit .271 for the match, and Kentucky hit .252.
After Kentucky took the third set, NU finished the Wildcats off by winning the fourth set.
In the fourth set NU got out to leads of 5-1 and 7-3, but the set went back and forth most of the way from there. Kentucky tied the match at 18-all, and again at 19.
Foecke had a big kill to give the Huskers a 20-19 lead, then she went to the service line, and that’s usually a good thing for the Huskers. Nebraska won the next point on a block by Sweet and Holman for a 21-19 lead. Albrecht had another big kill for a 22-20 lead, then Sweet had a solo block. The bench went nuts about that, and NU led 23-20.
“Probably the play of the match was that block,” Cook said. “That really gave us a two- or three-point cushion right there at the end of Game 4. That was a huge, huge play. It might've won it for us right there with the emotion of the match, and the way it was going."
Then Sweet had a kill off the blocker’s hands to make it 24-21. The Wildcats got one more kill, then served out on match point. The players on the bench rushed the floor, with Lauren Stivrins and Sydney Townsend ending up at the bottom of a dogpile.
The Huskers’ outside hitter came up big in the fourth set. Albrecht had five kills on seven attempts, including one on a back-row attack.
"She really rallied back,” Cook said of Albrecht. “She had a couple chances to win it for us in Game 3 and kind of went a little tentative. I told her, ‘You have to keep swinging at it.’"
In the third set, NU had a 24-22 lead and was on the verge of a sweep, but Kentucky twice fought off set points then won the set 27-25 when Brooke Morgan blocked Foecke.
Kentucky rallied to win its previous two matches in the tournament, but wouldn’t this time. In the fourth set the Huskers finished off what Cook called a great Kentucky team.
“When we won here (in the regional final) two years ago, it just wasn’t as dramatic as it was tonight,” Cook said. “So this was great for our team to have to really dig down and make some great plays tonight. It had to be fun to watch if you were a fan.”