Nebraska's Championship Sweep Of Texas Is A Real Crowd Pleaser
OMAHA, Neb. -- Kadie Rolfzen doesn't recall much about the NCAA title Nebraska won in 2006 in this same building. Just one thing, really.
"When Jordan Larson won it in 2006, I remember her shot down the line to win," Rolfzen said Saturday in the aftermath of claiming her own championship. "I remember her being a Nebraska girl, and us coming to Nebraska and thinking that hopefully we will be able to do that. And here we are."
The "we," of course, is Rolfzen and her twin sister, Amber. The dynamic duo was so key in everything that happened this year to lead the Huskers to this point: a Big Red déjà vu championship. It came in front of a jam-packed arena so loud that at one point Kadie Rolfzen said she couldn't hear the teammate standing next to her.
Nebraska played so well, though, you figured maybe they didn't even need words. The Huskers were the No. 4 seed in the tournament, but there didn't seem any doubt by season's end they were the best team in the country.
They proved that with a 25-23, 25-23, 25-21 victory over No. 3 seed Texas in front of 17,561 fans at CenturyLink Center. It's not really that the Longhorns played poorly, but Nebraska simply never gave them any openings to go on runs.
"Their kill percentage was great, and they played phenomenal," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "Sometimes you run into a team that plays that well -- and feeding off that crowd for themselves. I don't know what else we could have done."
Indeed, the way the Huskers played on Saturday, it's hard to imagine any team this season would have defeated them. Close as all three sets were, there was just a feeling throughout that Nebraska was in control.
The Huskers' last NCAA title came here nine years ago, when the building was called the Qwest Center. They were the No. 1 seed, and Nebraska had perhaps the two best players in program history (which is saying something) in Larson and four-time first-team All-American Sarah Pavan.
Considering that both returned for the next season, there certainly was the thought after that celebration that the Huskers would do it all over again in 2007. Instead, Penn State started its remarkable run of winning four titles in a row and six of eight.
That wasn't an easy time for Nebraska coach John Cook, who has the highest of expectations for himself and the program. The Huskers made it back to the national semifinals when the event was in Omaha in 2008, but they lost to the Nittany Lions. They were stopped short of the final four each subsequent year until this one.
During that time, Nebraska won a ton of matches, changed conferences to the Big Ten and moved to a new home in Lincoln, the remodeled Devaney Center. There was a lot going right all during that time for Nebraska volleyball, including the recruitment of the Rolfzen twins, who played high school volleyball just outside of Omaha and never considered going anywhere else. Still, the Huskers and their faithful fans were burning to win another national championship.
This season, everything aligned again. Setter Kelly Hunter, who redshirted last year, was back as a sophomore. Her former prep teammates, the junior Rolfzen twins, made position changes to help strengthen the team and move freshman Mikaela Foecke to a more comfortable spot at outside hitter.
"We hated it at first," a smiling Kadie Rolfzen said of the changes. "But once we got the hang of it, we just knew that it was best for this team -- which you can see now."
Foecke ended up as the most outstanding player of the final four, adding 19 kills on Saturday to the 12 she had on Thursday against Kansas. Foecke is from West Point, Iowa, in the southeastern corner of that state. West Point is "famous" as the home of the largest sweet corn festival in Iowa ... and now also home to national champion Mikaela Foecke.
"I was not nervous," Foecke said of playing such a big match as a freshman. "I think it was because I know that those fans that were out there tonight were all supporting us and had our backs."
Cook said that Foecke was so calm and confident this season, it actually made him feel better about Nebraska's chances to win this title.
"One thing we talk about is being resilient when things aren't going well. Can you stay in the fight?" Cook said. "And Mikaela's a natural at it. I never see her get down. It probably helps me a lot, because the longer you coach, you start seeing all the things you do wrong. And it's nice to see people that are believing they're going to win the next point."
Texas had that same attitude this season, despite having lost three-time Big 12 player of the year Haley Eckerman to graduation and having injuries sideline two players expected to be key contributors. This year's Longhorns were more a sum-of-all-parts team that played on heart, guts and smarts.
"They have got some magic between them, about what they were able to do," Elliott said. "This team, more so than any team that I've ever coached, took me for a ride. They instilled confidence in me, made me believe in them. And I felt like tonight we could win this match."
Ultimately, though, the Huskers -- who lost in five sets at Texas in September -- just did everything too well for the Longhorns to win their program's third NCAA title. Instead, the Huskers won their fourth, and they got to revel in it with a city and state that loves the sport and those who play it for the Big Red.
Amber Rolfzen had 10 kills and four blocks on Saturday, while Kadie Rolfzen had four kills and 10 digs. Nebraska finished the season 32-4 and on a 16-match winning streak. The Huskers lost back-to-back matches at home in late October to Big Ten champion Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it was all W's after that.
"I'm not sure at the beginning of the year I thought we could win the national championship," Cook said. "We played our best match of the year tonight. This team has really maxed themselves out."