Husker Heroes

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Texas and Nebraska battle at the net during the NCAA Division I women's volleyball national championship match.

Oh, those squinty eyes.

Those who admire Nebraska coach John Cook see the glimmer of a defiant gunslinger. Those whose favorite teams regularly lose to the Cornhuskers are somewhat less kind.

Perhaps Cook’s squint is inherited. He says he earned it honestly from all those hours in his 20s, playing beach volleyball in the San Diego sun. But on December 19, Cook looked for all the world like hed spent a lifetime crinkling his eyes astride a cornfield combine. Even his postgame duds looked suspiciously agricultural: a shirt that seemed sweat-soaked and a cap that could have read John Deere. The shirt, in fact, had been doused with water by his jubilant players, and the writing on the cap read NCAA Champion.

Above his right cheek, Cook bore the unmistakable mark of a black eye. All week, hed refused to disclose how the blemish came to be. Jokes flew about whether Notre Dame coach Jim McLaughlin was in Omaha, looking to settle a score from a long-ago postgame dustup in Seattle. Cook would only say the black eye may or may not have been volleyball-related, and that the Nebraska Athletic Department’s efforts to hide the bruise with pancake makeup had failed.

Nebraska’s 3-0 sweep of Texas (25-23, 25-23, 25-21) earned Cook his third NCAA championship and erased a decidedly different kind of bruise suffered eight weeks earlier, when the enigmatic coach worried that his entire season might fall flat.

In late October, playing at home, Nebraska lost back-to-back four-set matches to Minnesota and Wisconsin. At the following Monday’s practice, the mood was funereal. We kind of hit rock bottom, Cook remembered. I mean, when was the last time Nebraska lost back-to-back at home?

The answer: 2003.

We were devastated. As a coach, youre questioning everything. I dont think we slept for a couple nights.

Those toss-and-turn sessions included some serious second-guessing. During the spring, Cook had shifted junior Amber Rolfzen from opposite to middle. Then, after a close early season loss at Texas, Cook moved Amber’s All-American twin Kadie Rolfzen from the left side to the right, and switched freshman Mikaela Foecke from right to left.

The shake-up seemed to work, especially during a five-set road win against then top-ranked Penn State. But after the Minnesota/Wisconsin twin killings, Cook worried his players might doubt the wisdom of the positional scramble.

I met with Kadie and Amber and Mikaela, said Cook. I told them, even though we lost, the numbers are showing this is our best lineup, and were gonna stay with it. I said, You gotta buy in.

They did, and the Huskers haven’t lost since.

Looking back, Cook says he never panicked, despite those sleepless nights. When he stood at the whiteboard the Monday after the double loss, he was calm, even confident. Maybe because I didnt have a big reaction [to the losses], it made them thinkand trustthat we were okay. Maybe that’s exactly what they needed.

The players agree. We played a lot better when we played more loose, said Foeke, who thinks Cook grew less intense after the losses, not more. We had to play loose and more free and just enjoy each other, as opposed to being on edge and worrying about what went wrong and being afraid to make mistakes. He gave us leeway to enjoy the game and have fun.

They took a deep breath, said Cook, and relaxed.

And as the season blossomed anew, so did Foecke. An only child from tiny West Point, Iowa (population: 963), neither her accountant mother nor her insurance agent father were big-time athletes (Gosh, no, she said). On her way to her current 6-foot-2 height, Foecke played several sports at Holy Trinity High School (graduating class: 26), but volleyball won out. She twice attended John Cook’s volleyball camps and spent one club season with Chicago-based Fusion (driving time from West Point: four hours each way.)

During warm-ups before the championship match against Texas, an NCAA record 17,561 fans began filling CenturyLink Center, most wearing Nebraska red. The crowd included just a handful of Foecke’s familythe event had been sold out months earlier (We were lucky to get a few tickets, she said). The biggest match of her life on the biggest stage she could imagine. Was she nervous? No. Even a little? No.

In West Point, Foecke explained, folks don’t waste time getting nervous over little things like games. Two nights earlier, she had been as cool as an Iowa pond in winter, powering 12 kills and two aces in a 3-1 semifinal win against Kansas. Family members congratulated her and then moved on. It’s not that big a deal, she said.

Before the final, Texas coach Jerritt Elliott told his team theyd need to slow Foecke down by serving tough. If the Huskers passed poorly, Elliott told them, Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter might be forced to rely too heavily on Foecke, allowing the Longhorns middles to commit early to the outside block.

Usually, said Elliott, Nebraska gives up a few errors and gives you some runs.

But in a match in which neither team managed long runs, Nebraska refused to gift wrap easy points. With Texas leading 12-11 in the first set, the Huskers began passing nails. Blessed with plenty of options, Hunter chose Foecke time and again. Four of the next five kills came from the 6’2″ freshman, including line shots, cross-court swings, and powerful blasts off the high hands of Texas blockers.

I gotta give credit to Foecke, said Elliott. Moving the ball around. Hitting the hard seam. Hitting down the line. She put some real pressure on us.

Foecke credits her defenders for her shot selection. I could hear them behind me yelling where they thought I should hit, she said. If I saw the seam, I just went up and went after it, and just trusted [the blockers] werent gonna get there to close. Foecke’s eight kills in the first set proved just enough in Nebraska’s 25-23 win.

Early in the second set, both teams set their middles in motion. Longhorn Molly McCage raced to her right for a slide kill, only to have Amber Rolfzen counter with the very same. In one stretch, slides accounted for six straight alternating points. When McCage and Rolfzen later rotated back in, the ping-pong scoring continued.

Late in the second, the longest rally of the match ended with a Foecke cross-court kill and a 20-17 Nebraska lead. After Elliott called a time-out, Texas roared back with four consecutive points on the strength of kills by Amy Neal and the Longhorns own freshman sensation, Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani. Yaazi, as she’s known, had been the difference in Texas semifinal squeaker over Big Ten champ Minnesota and was in a groove midway through set two against Nebraska. A Foecke kill tied the score at 21; Bedart-Ghani answered with a laser cross from the right.

[Bedart-Ghani’s] attack is pretty unique, said Elliott, because her technique is pretty poor. We decided early on as a staff to let it go. It creates some different angles. And she hits the snot out of it.

But after another Foecke cross tied it at 21, Amber Rolfzen stuffed a McCage slide attempt, and Foecke made it set point by crushing a kill off the hands of Texas setter Chloe Collins. Nebraska went into the break with another 25-23 win.

Mikaela and Kelly were in a great rhythm, said Cook. Every set in was in Mikaela’s wheelhouse. And Mikaela’s very humble. A setter wants to set someone like that, because there’s no pressure if the set is just a bit off. Mikaela never whines.

Elliott clicked his lineup for set three to match Bedart-Ghani directly across from Foecke, a move that had its intended effect, as Yaazi outplayed Mikaela. But Nebraska’s passing never wavered, allowing Hunter to feed the Rolfzen twins at will. During one crucial stretch, Kadie and Amber accounted for six of the Huskers eight points, the final an Amber slide that gave Nebraska its penultimate point.

Elliott has taken Texas to four consecutive final fours, with just one title during that stretch (in 2012). He was disappointed by the Husker sweep but impressed by the quality of the championship match. I thought it was the best Nebraska’s played all year long, he said. Our team played their butts off. But Nebraska came to play.

Amid the postgame hoopla and streams of confetti, Foecke remained as cool as shed been throughout the week. Despite being selected the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, she deflected questions about how well she had performed.

The reason I play is more for the love of the game, she said, and not necessarily for the glory or the big wins and the big points. It’s for your teammates and for all those memories you make along the way. For those times youll be able to look back on in 20 or 30 years and say, Remember this time in Omaha? Those are the things that really matter the most.

In his soaked shirt and new cap, Cook said it wasnt an act. Mikaela is calm. This was no fluke. I’ve seen this in her all season.

And then, Cook was prodded one last time to explain the black eye. The team has come up with three theories, he said. Maybe one of them is right, maybe not.

Id prefer to leave it a mystery, he said, with a squint and a grin.

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