By Mike Malloy for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Neb. — It’s a fairly common site after Nebraska home matches.
Outside the Cornhuskers locker room, a Lincoln police officer stands behind a velvet rope. On the other side, a handful of people, often in pairs — a girl, usually tall for her age group, and her mother — waiting with Sharpie in hand for the players to emerge. Most aren’t picky, but there’s one autograph that is sought, and given, more than others.
Senior Mikaela Foecke greeted that gathering for the last time Saturday after Nebraska advanced to the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals with a sweep against Missouri. And what a send off it was as Foecke finished with 16 kills in 24 errorless swings, seven digs, four blocks, two aces, and no errors.
“It doesn’t matter if your block is there, she’s going to hit around it,” Missouri middle blocker Alyssa Munlyn said. “She’s placing the ball and not just hitting mindlessly.”
Foecke had no errors in 46 total attacks in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, sweeps of Hofstra and Missouri — “Name another player that’s done that,” Nebraska coach John Cook offered — adding another line to an overflowing resume.
Foecke has been to the NCAA final four three times, winning two championships. That included being named the most outstanding player in 2015 when Nebraska won and she was a freshman after getting 19 kills and hitting .385 in the title match against Texas.
In 2016, Nebraska lost in the national semifinals. Then last season, when the Huskers beat Florida behind Foecke’s 20 kills and 14 digs in the championship match, Foecke took top honors again, sharing them with Kelly Hunter.
Foecke ranks fourth in career kills and eighth in aces in Nebraska’s storied history.
“She’s one of the greatest players in the nation, and she’s become one of my best friends,” fellow four-year starter Kenzie Maloney said. “We’ve built a bond, and being captains this year has brought us even closer.”
Foecke, who has a 3.65 grade-point average in animal science/pre-veterinary science, grew up in West Point, a town just shy of 1,000 in southeast Iowa. She set a still-standing state record with 2,813 kills, and in her senior year led Holy Trinity Catholic to its first state championship in any sport. Despite playing at a small school in a small state, Foecke earned the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year — the first Iowan in any sport to do so. April Ross of the U.S. National Team presented her the trophy while Foecke was in chemistry class.
“Are you sure you have the right room?” Foecke asked, according to a story in the Des Moines Register.
Nobody else in the room had any doubt.
“She keeps getting better, which is hard to do given how good she was in high school,” her high school coach Melissa Freesmeier said. “In seventh-grade, she was above-average, but in eighth grade I knew she was going to play varsity. I don’t bring a lot of freshmen up, but I knew she was going to make an impact.”
Freesmeier never lets freshmen be team captains, and she didn’t question that rule until Foecke came along.
“I never had to make her work,” Freesmeier said.
In fact, sometimes she had to stop Foecke from working. Foecke often borrowed Freesmeier’s keys to the school gym to get in extra work, something her current coach is familiar with. In the summer before Foecke’s freshman season at Nebraska, Cook looked out of his office window and saw a mess.
“There’s like 200 balls all over the gym,” Cook said. “Then I see Mikaela in the corner. She’d just served all those balls.”
Foecke also spent time in high school working the crowd. Many times after a match, Foecke would chat up fans, especially kids, until Freesmeier, with keys in one hand and the other on the gym’s light switch, would shout to her best player, “Hey, it’s time to go.”
“We’d be at games and opposing team members and fans would come over and say ‘hey, can I get a pic?’ ” Freesmeier said.
It was good training for Nebraska, where red-wearing fans have filled the Devaney Sports Center for all of Foecke’s home matches.
“When you have 8,000 fans coming, game-in, game-out, you have to be appreciative,” she said. “It still gives me chills every time I run out. Talking to them for a few minutes after the game shows you care about what they care about.”
Cook said he’s had to limit how much time Foecke spends giving interviews and signing autographs, but there’s only so much he can do.
Like after Thursday’s pre-tournament practice. After all the other Cornhuskers left the court, Foecke found two young girls sitting courtside.
“Hey, guys. What are you up to?” Foecke said.