LINCOLN — In the afterglow of Nebraska’s sweep of Missouri in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday, the premise of Husker coach John Cook’s lightheartedness was understandable.
Seated at an interview table next to his senior captain, after another one of her December masterpieces, Cook reached out for a name tag other than his own, offering to swap. Most volleyball players could relate to his ensuing sentiment.
“I just want to be Mikaela Foecke tonight,” Cook said.
Foecke, in her final career match at the Devaney Center, was superb. With 16 kills on 24 swings, the All-American powered NU to 25-14, 25-22, 25-18 win which punched Nebraska’s ticket to Minneapolis next weekend. The Huskers will face No. 10 seed Kentucky in the regional semifinal, a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight match. No. 2-seeded Minnesota will face No. 15-seed Oregon in the other regional semifinal.
“I was telling the girls in the locker room that playing a team like Missouri that’s really spunky and has a lot going for them, it’s fun,” she said. “It makes it really competitive out there. Obviously you could tell when we were out there, we were having a lot of fun.”
With Foecke’s total, she bumped her name higher in the Huskers’ record book, moving past Olympians Jordan Larson and Nancy Metcalf into fourth place on NU’s all-time kills list with 1,608. She finished the weekend with 25 kills on 46 attempts and no hitting errors to hit .543.
“She went the whole weekend and didn’t have an attack error,” Cook said. “She blocks, she passes, digs, the whole thing. To play at that level, no errors two matches in a row, tell me the last player that did that.”
Foecke wasn’t the only Husker to have it working on Saturday. Nebraska’s offense continued its late-season surge with a .384 hitting percentage behind freshman setter Nicklin Hames’ 37 assists. It’s the fifth straight match Nebraska (26-6) has hit better than .350.
“We’ve been working on that a lot. In transition and in serve receive, just always being able to take a swing,” Hames said. “We’ve been really working on that lately, and I think it’s really started to show on the court and during the games.”
Three other Huskers surpassed .300 hitting with Lexi Sun reaching double figures with 11 kills at .333 attacking. Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins put down eight kills on 12 error-free swings, and opposite hitter Jazz Sweet had her best match in more than a month with eight kills on .316 hitting.
It was Sweet’s highest kill total since getting 11 against Ohio State on October 24.
“Jazz has been working really hard the last few weeks,” Cook said. “We’ve tweaked a couple things, and just to see her be aggressive and take swings like that, that’s the Jazz I’m used to. She’s choosing a really good time to play like that.”
Nebraska ended Missouri’s season in the first meeting between the schools since they were members of the Big 12 Conference in 2010. Leketor Member-Meneh led the Tigers (25-7) with 11 kills, and Kylie Deberg had 10, but Missouri couldn’t recreate its offensive magic from Friday when they hit .412 in the first round against Arizona.
NU held the Tigers to .216 on Saturday with Stivrins notching six of Nebraska’s eight blocks and senior libero Kenzie Maloney picking up a team-high 12 digs.
Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow credited Nebraska’s serving for keeping the Tigers off balance. Five different Huskers served aces on Saturday, totaling seven service winners.
“I thought they did a really good job putting a lot of pressure on us with the serve, getting us out of system and not letting us kind of get into an offensive flow,” Kreklow said. “That was tough for us. They’re just a really good team.”
The Tigers jumped to 3-0 leads in the first two sets only to see the Huskers put together decisive runs to answer. It was a 12-2 spurt in Game 1 capped by Hames, Nebraska’s smallest front row player, blocking Member-Meneh on back-to-back rallies.
“When the crowd’s going, we’re going, we’re super energetic and we’re kind of just focused on playing,” Hames said. “We don’t even realize what the score is. It happens a lot actually.”
Missouri withstood Nebraska’s 7-0 run in Game 2, pulling within 18-17 before Foecke fired a back-row kill and followed with an ace to put the Huskers up four, allowing them to side out to take the set.
In the third set, it was Stivrins who keyed an early 8-1 run with two kills and three blocks to put Nebraska on top 9-3. With Missouri still lurking down 17-13, the Huskers again turned to Foecke, who added three late kills including back-row blasts on back-to-back rallies.
“She’s just a powerful hitter,” Missouri middle blocker Alyssa Munlyn said. “She doesn’t make a lot of errors. It doesn’t matter if your block is up there, she’s going to hit around it. I think she’s just a smart player, which makes her hard to defend because she’s placing the ball. She’s not just hitting mindlessly.”
After Sun and Sweet’s final kills closed out the match, the Huskers were headed to the regional round for the 24th time in 25 seasons. In Minneapolis, NU will seek a fourth straight trip to the final four, never done before in school history.
As has become custom, the Huskers took a victory lap around the Devaney Center after match point. Foecke soaked it in, appreciating every high-five with the portion of the sell-out crowd of 8,382 fans fortunate enough to crowd close to the court.
Teammates chide her for being the team Mom, checking in on their classwork, making sure they’re on time and getting enough to eat. Thinking ahead to at least one more match this year, Foecke couldn’t leave the floor without another nurturing reminder.
You just slapped a lot of palms, and it’s cold and flu season. Everyone remember to wash your hands.
“Don’t want to get sick,” she said. “We’ve got to play.”
Missouri (25-7)…………………14 22 18
At Nebraska (26-6)……………25 25 25
UM (kills-aces-blocks): Member-Meneh 11-0-0, Deberg 10-0-2, Munlyn 7-0-2, Omazic 6-0-1, Hollingsworth 4-1-2. Totals 38-1-7.
NU: Foecke 16-2-4, Sun 11-1-0, Sweet 8-0-1, Stivrins 8-0-6, Schwarzenbach 2-0-1, Hames 1-2-3, Miller 0-1-0, Maloney 0-1-0. Totals 46-7-15.
Set Assists: M 35 (Fuentes 30, Munlyn 2, Sents 2, Hollingsworth 1), N 41 (Hames 37, Sun 2, Miller 1, Maloney 1). A: 8,382