OMAHAWhere Mikaela Foecke comes from, it does no good to worry or whine.
The Nebraska outside hitter was raised in West Point, Iowa. You could fit every resident of that tiny town into Omaha’s CenturyLink Center and still have room for 16 more towns the same size. In West Point, folks have work to do. They don’t waste time fretting.
So when the Cornhusker freshman walked into an arena crammed with the largest crowd (17,561) to ever see an NCAA volleyball match, she had no practice being scared out of her wits.
“I just wasn’t nervous,” she said.
In a stellar performance, the youngest Husker on the court was the runaway choice as Most Outstanding Player of the 2015 Women’s Division I National Championship. Foecke tallied 19 kills and just four errorstwo of them back-to-back late in the matchon 39 swings (.385) as fourth-seeded Nebraska did just enough right to slip past determined third seed Texas 3-0 (25-23, 25-23, 25-21). It was Nebraska’s fourth national championship and its first since 2006, when it also won in Omaha.
“It was a great match and a great environment,” said an ebullient Nebraska coach John Cook.
In a chess match between a pair of elite head coaches, the outcome hinged on the smallest of details. Like most coaches, Cook hides the hand signals he flashes to his servers by holding a clipboard next to his hand. On this night, camouflage was hardly necessary.
“We pretty much served position one,” said Cook. “Most teams tend to serve [Texas outside hitter Amy] Neal, but Neal still transitions and Texas usually wins. We decided to be different.”
Early on, both teams missed a string of serves. But as the match wore on, Nebraska’s passing proved just that much better than that of the Longhorns. Texas struggled with those deep-one serves and was frequently out of system, making it difficult to vary its attack. Husker setter Kelly Hunter, on the other hand, had plenty of options, and chose Foecke more times than not.
“All season, Mikaela and I have been talking about what kind of ball she needs,” said Hunter. “I think we figured it out.”
“The reality,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, “is their sideout percentage was good (66 percent to Texas’ 59 percent). We were getting opportunities to score, we just couldn’t score out of system.
“I didn’t think [Foecke] would be hitting the numbers that she hit tonight, that’s for sure,” Elliott said. “She was on fire.”
For a freshman, Foecke has a wonderfully varied arsenal. She attacks both cross and line with equal success and frustrated Longhorn blockers by hitting high hands. After rare errors, she reacted with utter calm.
“One thing we talk about,” said Cook, “is being resilient. And Mikaela’s a natural at it. I never see her get down. She’s very positive and goes on to the next point. That not only helps her as a player, but it really helps other players on our team, and probably helps me a lot, too.”
Texas (30-3) reached the finals by squeaking out a 3-1 win against Minnesota Thursday, winning each of the first two sets by two points. Against Nebraska, the tables were turned, as Texas tied both of the first two sets 22-22, but went on to lose each set 25-23. In both cases, Husker middle Amber Rolfzen got a late stuff block, and in the second set, Foecke had four of Nebraska’s five kills.
In the locker room during the break, Elliott changed the order of his lineup. He dialed his serving order to match his own freshman phenom, Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, against Foecke.
“We were trying to get that matchup on her to slow her down a little bit and give ourselves an opportunity to get more transition points,” said Elliott.
It workeda little. Bedart-Ghani held Foecke to two points in the third set, and picked up three of her 11 kills in that frame. But the rest of the Longhorns committed a flurry of errors down the stretch, hitting long and wide and missing attempts to hit high hands. Twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen saved their best for last, getting a combined seven kills and three blocks in the decisive frame.
“Nebraska was under 12 percent hitting errors,” said Elliott. “Their kill percentage was great. They played phenomenal. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
At match point, Cook called a timeout. The huge crowd roared.
“Actually, I didn’t hear anything [Cook] said,” admitted Amber Rolfzen. “We all just looked each other in the eye and we didn’t really care what the score was.”
“I think, no matter what was said in that huddle,” said Hunter, “there was no doubt that we were going to win.”