Second to none: Mikaela Foecke provides key offensive punch in Huskers’ national title victory

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shawn Jackson always has the hottest tickets in town, and though he normally deals in football, basketball and concert passes, he recognized a money-making opportunity when he saw one.

If you found him on the corner of 13th and Oak in downtown Kansas City on Saturday night, for a couple hundred bucks, you could have convinced him to part with a ticket to watch history.

Mikaela Foecke was worth it.

In front of a sellout crowd at Sprint Center so packed with Nebraska fans you could shut your eyes and wonder when the Devaney Center got so big, Foecke’s 20 kills and 14 digs ensured the Huskers’ storybook season got the happily-ever-after everyone had driven down to see.

Nebraska’s 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16 win over No. 2-seeded Florida sent the Huskers off the confetti-cluttered court and into legend with NU’s fifth NCAA volleyball championship. An unforeseen title that cemented an unmatched legacy for Nebraska’s upperclassmen who became the first players in the program’s history ever to win two national championships.

Two years ago, Foecke’s 19 kills in the NCAA final against Texas gave her the Most Outstanding Player honor as a freshman. Saturday, Nebraska (32-4) rode Foecke’s arm for 53 swings in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 18,516 fans.

“Just looking at the paper when we walked in here, I was like ‘20 kills?’ Oh my God, I didn’t even realize it was that many,” NU setter Kelly Hunter said. “Normally we don’t have a go to, and I think it’s Foecke’s thing to step up in the tournament.”

Foecke and Hunter shared the final four’s Most Outstanding Player honor, a fitting accolade for the two Huskers who had their hands on so much of Nebraska’s success on Saturday.

“The first time I thought (winning a national championship) was extra special,” Foecke said. “Winning a national championship seems like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so being here a second time is something I’m super grateful for. I wouldn’t want anyone else to be the Most Outstanding Player other than Kelly.”

Foecke was the only Husker player to reach double-digit kills, carrying what was an NU attack that came in fits and starts. With outside hitter Annika Albrecht and opposite hitter Jazz Sweet each hitting .000 in the match, Nebraska clawed for every bit of offense and hit .234, its lowest mark during the NCAA tournament.

Foecke’s rips will be remembered, but Florida coach Mary Wise, who was attempting to become the first female coach to lead a team to an NCAA title, highlighted Hunter as the player of the match.

“If I were to choose an MVP, it would have been Kelly Hunter,” Wise said. “Mikaela has a great arm, but Kelly, I think, was the best setter in the country, and I think on the biggest stage and on the biggest night, I think she was the best player on the floor.”

Florida's Carli Snyder and Shainah Joseph, both second-team All-Americans each had 11 kills to lead the Gators, but Nebraska’s defense was equal to the task needed to grind out the win. NU held Florida to a season-low .141 hitting to deny the Gators’ their first NCAA title.

The Huskers held a 65-49 advantage in digs with junior libero Kenzie Maloney’s 15 digs leading four Huskers in double figures, joining Foecke, Sydney Townsend (11), and Albrecht (11).

"I think we knew that the serve-pass game was going to be crucial in this match, and they definitely won that game tonight,” Snyder said. “It puts us in a difficult position trying to play out-of-system balls. They’re a great defensive and a great blocking team."

Nebraska (32-4) won the first set despite hitting .081, holding the Gators to .025. NU found its rhythm in the second, hitting .417 with Foecke’s kill from the right side starting a 3-0 run to give the Huskers a 16-9 lead.

Florida punched back in Game 3, cutting into the Huskers’ lead by hitting .308. The Gators’ 6-1 run put NU in a hole they couldn’t recover from.

But the end came quickly in Game 4, fueled so often as it has this season by Nebraska’s serving. Maloney’s hot serving got the Huskers’ a 3-0 lead, and it was Hunter at the service line next to run off five points including an ace. When Briana Holman and Foecke blocked Joseph on the next rally, the Huskers led 9-1 and would never lead the finale by fewer than four points.

The day was doubly sweet for Holman, who redshirted when the Huskers won the 2015 title after transferring from LSU. The senior from DeSoto, Texas, received her college diploma earlier Saturday, with the team cheering her on during NU’s morning serve-and-pass practice.

Holman hit .417 with seven kills and added a team-best six blocks Saturday, and was overcome with emotion when coach John Cook put her in the spotlight in NU’s postgame press conference.

“It felt amazing. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and I’m the first in my immediate family to go to college,” Holman said before tears silenced any further speech.

With the title, Cook joined elite company. He became the fourth coach in NCAA history with at least four national championships, being added to the group of Penn State’s Russ Rose, former Stanford coach Don Shaw, and John Dunning who won a combined five titles with Stanford and Pacific.

Yet the group who added the latest trophy gave Cook a special kind of joy. After replacing four seniors and two assistant coaches from a year ago, this year’s Huskers drew their coaches’ praise for their hard work, chemistry, and good energy. It left him ecstatic these upperclassmen became the first players in program history with multiple titles.

“I’ve had so much fun coaching this year,” Cook said. “I keep talking about that. It’s such a fun group to be around.”

Said Hunter: “This has been my favorite group that I’ve been here. We’ve proved a lot of people wrong and we’ve grinded all season.”

When final four tickets went on sale, most of the good seats were $40. Shawn Jackson wanted to turn a reasonable profit, but he wasn’t gouging anyone for $300 a seat like he’d heard through the grapevine.

He couldn’t really understand it before the match, such a market for volleyball. “Nebraska fans make it like this,” he said.

Jackson never made it inside. He didn’t hear the roar when Foecke’s final kill caromed beyond Florida's back row and put her team in a class alone. He didn’t see the Huskers persist through several tries to douse Cook in Gatorade.

All he needed to know was a man can make a living selling people the chance to witness something special.

“This has been an unbelievable, fun season to coach,” Cook said. “I really appreciate it. When you have teams like this, you’ve got to enjoy every moment.”


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