Nebraska captures NCAA crown with four-set win over Florida

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Nebraska celebrates its NCAA-championship victory over Florida/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo — Mikaela Foecke got the back bump set from libero Kenzie Maloney, went up, and blasted her final swing of the match high off the hands of Florida’s Rachael Kramer and as the ball sailed past the end line, Nebraska’s players dog-piled and the coaches went into a long group embrace.

The Huskers had won the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship 25-22, 17-25, 25-18, 25-16, Nebraska’s second title in three years. It happened before an NCAA final record crowd of 18,516 in the Nebraska-fan-dominated Sprint Center, about which Huskers coach John Cook asked, “How cool is this for volleyball?”

Foecke, a junior outside hitter who was named the 2015 tournament MVP as a freshman, shared the honor this time with setter Kelly Hunter as she led with 20 of her team’s kills on 56 swings. She had an ace, 14 digs and three blocks.

Freshman middle Lauren Stivrins had nine kills and Briana Holman, who had six blocks, and Annika Albrecht, who had 11 digs and two blocks, added seven kills each. Maloney had two kills, three assists, an ace and 15 digs.

For Holman, the transfer from LSU who sat out the 2015 season, it was quite a day. She graduated Saturday, becoming the first person in her immediate family to earn a college degree.

“It feels amazing,” Holman said. “It’s a long journey to get to this point.”

As co-Big Ten champion Nebraska improved to 32-4 with its 19th win in a row, Hunter had six kills, 37 assists and 11 digs.

“Well, when you get to this match, the setters on both sides weren’t perfect. The great thing about Kelly is she has a very short memory,” Cook said. “She had a couple really tough sets in the first game. She had a couple tough sets in the third game, to start the third game. But Kelly forgets it and goes on to the next point. She’s really learned how to embrace that.

“In that fourth game, she was really, really good and made really good decisions. I think that’s what impresses me most.”

Hunter was gratified.

“When we’re playing our good volleyball, no one can beat us, so we were just focused on our side no matter what happened, and no matter what the seeds were or anything like that,” Hunter said. “We played Nebraska volleyball, and it took us all the way to the national championship and to a win.

The title was Nebraska’s fifth. The school won in 1995 and three times previously under Cook, in 2000, 2006 and 2015. And his team avenged a 3-2 loss at Florida in the second match of the season.

“I’ve had so much fun coaching this year,” Cook said. “But it’s such a fun group to be around. It’s way different than what I’m used to. They’re loose, they’re fun. You saw in the end, they’re trying to dump the Powerade thing on me, and it’s like this all the time.”

What’s more, he said the staff was already talking about having Cook take them to Cabo San Lucas like he did last year.

“So the tradition continues. I don’t know. I’m going to think about how rewarding it is, but this has been an unbelievable, fun season to coach,” Cook continued. “I really appreciate it, and I’m very thankful.

“When you have teams like this, you’ve got to enjoy every moment. That’s what everybody I surround myself with kept telling me. You’ve got to enjoy this team every moment. Their quirks, they’re fun, they mess around, they play practical jokes, but they know how to win and they play great together. It’s just been, like I said, really fun and rewarding.”

Co-SEC champion Florida’s season ended 30-2. It was Florida’s second trip to the final —the other in 2003 under coach Mary Wise — but no SEC team has ever won it all.

The Gators, who had won 16 in a row, were got 11 kills each from Carli Snyder and Shainah Joseph. Snyder had 15 digs, an ace and three blocks. Rhamat Alhassan had seven kills, an ace and six kills, one solo.

Nebraska hit .234 for the match, while Florida hit .141.

Kenzie Maloney of Nebraska goes all out for the save against Florida/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The match was scheduled to be shown on ESPN2, but when it started the Division II football-championship game between West Florida and Texas A&M Commerce was still in progress. So the volleyball match started on ESPNU and when the football game ended, with Nebraska up 24-22 in the first set, the network switched it to ESPN2.

Neither was team was sharp early. When Nebraska called time down 12-10 the Huskers were hitting -.053, while Florida was hitting .048.

It was tied at 22-22 when the Huskers went up on a service error by Chanelle Hargreaves and a hitting error by Snyder. It ended on Foecke’s cross-court kill.

The second set was all Nebraska. Florida successfully used one of its three challenges to change the score from 23-14 to 22-15, but it was hardly enough.

The set again ended on a Foecke kill, her fifth of the set and 10th of the match.

But Florida made sure that Nebraska, which swept Texas in the 2015 final, wouldn’t sweep again by controlling the third set. Alhassan had four of her kills, Snyder and Joseph three each, Mia Sokolowski both of hers in the third set.

In the fourth, it was all Nebraska. The Huskers built a 9-1 lead. Florida got as close as 14-10, but Nebraska pulled away again.

The season opened on August 25 in Gainesville, when Nebraska lost to Oregon in four and then Florida beat Texas in four.

And then the next night, Florida dropped the Huskers to an unlikely 0-2 with a 19-25, 25-18, 17-25, 25-18, 15-11 victory. It marked a coming-out party for Rachael Kramer, who had 20 kills with one error in 28 swings for a .679 hitting percentage. She also had three blocks. Alhassan had eight kills but hit .172 as she had eight blocks, and Joseph had 11 kills, five digs and two blocks. And Snyder had eight kills, hit .022 but had 27 digs, an ace and a block.

Things were certainly different for Nebraska nearly four months later.

In that match, Nebraska playing without Hunter, hit just .155. Foecke led with 18 kills, 16 digs and four blocks. Jazz Sweet had 16 kills and hit .323 and Albrecht had 11 kills but hit .085. She had 16 digs.

As he ended Saturday night’s news conference, Cook summed up his Huskers’ season.

“This team maxed out everything they have,” he said. “Everything.”

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