Nebraska started the NCAA Division I women’s college volleyball season in Gainesville by losing to Oregon and Florida.
Senior setter Kelly Hunter was injured and didn’t play that weekend.
The 5-foot-11 product of Papillion, Nebraska, returned for the next match and her team proceeded to go 32-2 the rest of the way, tying for the Big Ten title.
Hunter, directing in many ways a new team, already one of the nation’s top setters, got even better and better and continually lifted the Huskers right through the NCAA Tournament, as Nebraska avenged that loss to Florida in the NCAA-championship match.
For that, Hunter is the VolleyballMag.com Player of the Year.
Of course, she is also a first-team VBM All-American. There is no doubt that this was the deepest, most-talented pool of NCAA Division I players ever and picking our first three teams plus honorable mentions was no easy task. Simply put, there are a lot of fabulous players who did not make our top three teams.
There was never a doubt that Hunter would be at least a first-teamer.
“Kelly’s one of the greatest setters that has played here,” said Nebraska coach John Cook, whose team just won its second title in three years. “We played with confidence and always went on to the next point and a lot of that was her. With her leadership, everybody else was relaxed and was confident like ‘We have this in control.’
“Of our last six teams, this team statistically played at its highest level in the Big Ten. We use the conference as a great comparison. It’s a great way to study how we play.
“Would we have won the title without Kelly? No way. There is no way. She should have been the Big Ten player of the year. She’s the best setter in the country and she was the best player in the tournament.”
Hunter shared final-four most-outstanding-player honors with teammate Mikaela Foecke, a junior outside hitter also on our first All-American team.
In the final, Foecke led with 20 kills and had 14 digs, an ace and three blocks. Hunter had 37 assists, six kills in 10 errorless attempts to hit .600, had two aces, eight digs and a block. And stats don’t show the great sets she made under tough circumstances and her strong choices.
Hunter, who finished her career with the second most assists in school history, became just the fourth setter to be named the POY, joining Misty May (Long Beach State, 1998), Greichaly Cepero (Nebraska, 2000) and Micha Hancock (Penn State, 2013).
Florida coach Mary Wise was asked about Foecke after the match.
“Mikaela was really, really good tonight. Her ability to terminate. (But) if I was to choose an MVP, it would have been Kelly Hunter,” Wise said. “Mikaela has a great arm, but Kelly, I think was the best setter in the country, and I think on the biggest stage and on the biggest night, I think she was the best player on the floor.”
Hunter finished the season averaging 10.72 assists as Nebraska hit .282 as a team. She had 92 kills (.79 per set), 27 aces, and averaged 2.73 digs and .55 blocks.
“I owe it all to our passers. We have the best passers in the country. They put it on a dime,” Hunter said.
“We have great hitters at every position. We had a balanced offense that kept other teams guessing and made it hard for them to block and for them to get in a rhythm.”
She certainly had great weapons, including fellow All-Americans Foecke, Annika Albrecht and Briana Holman.
“It was our blocking and defense and will to win,” said Hunter, who ended her career with a 16-1 record in the NCAA Tournament as Nebraska’s starting setter, posting the most wins and highest postseason winning percentage by a starting setter in Husker history.
“At the beginning of the year we made some adjustments and tried to figure things out. We were relentless with our blocking. We probably touched more balls on the season than we had digs. That let the other team know it was going to be hard to get a ball down on us.
“Two years ago we also had talented and physical athletes. This year we had the same but we didn’t have the height and the jumpers, but what we did have is an eagerness to better every day. The mindset this team had was hard to put into words. We have a genuine love for each other. Volleyball is huge with momentum and we had a lot of 6-7-8-point runs throughout the season in matches because of the mindset and mentality we have.”
Hunter was part a huge and talented 2013 freshman class that included Papillion-La Vista South teammates Kadie and Amber Rolfzen. But Hunter redshirted in 2014. Nebraska won the crown in 2015, last season lost in the national semifinals, and then she capped her career with the Huskers’ fifth title overall.
“The thing I am most proud of for Kelly is before this year we graduated a bunch of people and one of the reasons we redshirted her was to separate her from the twins,” Cook said.
“She had played with them for seven years. We talked to Kelly about this year it being your team and they are going to follow you. But for us to even have a chance to compete, we have to have you take your game up another level.”