Crunch time turns into crush time for Nebraska's Mikaela Foecke
KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- Nebraska's Mikaela Foecke is an amazing outside hitter, but she might not be the best wide receiver.
"Yeah, she definitely should stick to volleyball," teammate Briana Holman said in a lighthearted Huskers locker room after a heart-pounding 3-2 victory over Penn State on Thursday in the national semifinals.
"We were playing football one day during the summer, because throwing the ball is actually really good for your shoulder. We were also running routes and catching balls, and Foecke tripped on her own two feet and went headfirst into the turf."
Foecke, overhearing this, said, "Hey, are you talking about me?"
Holman laughed and continued, "It was so hilarious. But Foecke is Foecke."
Foecke almost tripped once in Thursday's match, too, when her legs got tangled up with a teammate who'd gone to the floor for a dig. But Foecke managed to extract herself in time to get the kill, one of 19 she had in the match. She also had 19 digs, and took the most swings -- 54 -- of anyone on either side of this high-drama, back-and-forth battle that showcased the best attributes of college volleyball.
Penn State, the No. 1 seed, and Nebraska, No. 5, were co-champions of the Big Ten this season. This was their 31st meeting, and their 11th in the NCAA tournament. Nebraska is now 8-3 in NCAA tournament matchups with Penn State, but this was the first time the Huskers beat the Nittany Lions at the final four.
The Huskers won the first set 25-18. The next two went to Penn State, 25-23 and 26-24. Then Penn State got out to a 6-1 lead in the fourth set, and the Huskers looked in big trouble. But Foecke said her team is not the type to fold.
"At that point, you just know you have nothing to lose," Foecke said. "We had everything to win. I just said in the huddle, 'We just need to go for it and play confident.' "
Leave it to Foecke, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from West Point, Iowa, to view a dire circumstance as a perfect opportunity. That's just her personality.
Plus, she's been here before on the big stage. As a freshman, she was the volleyball championship's most outstanding player as she combined for 31 kills in Nebraska's two victories in Omaha, Nebraska, leading the program to its fourth NCAA title. She played fearlessly then, despite the high stakes. And while she doesn't really seem that much different now as a junior, she points out that she has a lot more of an idea what's going on.
"I would say ignorance is bliss," Foecke said. "That's kind of how I was as a freshman. When you make it to the final your first time, you think, 'Oh, yeah, this is easy. We're going to win every year.' I just wasn't aware of how big a deal it was. Obviously, now I am. Especially after last year."
The Huskers were the No. 1 seed a year ago, but they were flat in the semifinals and were swept by Texas. Foecke had a team-best 13 kills in that match and was actually one of Nebraska's bright spots. But falling short as a team was really tough for her.
Coming into this season, after the Huskers lost three All-Americans, there was all the more weight on Foecke.
She responded by leading the Huskers with 402 kills and also compiling 262 digs and 58 blocks coming into Thursday's match. She was named a second-team AVCA All-American this week, but she sure looked like a first-teamer Thursday.
Foecke acknowledged that despite her seemingly carefree confidence, the thought that ran through her mind when Nebraska climbed all the way back -- and even saved a match point -- to prevail 28-26 in the fourth set was relief.
"It was like, 'Oh, thank God that set is over,' " Foecke said. "Then we just had to keep it going in the fifth set."
They did that, winning it 15-11 to the raucous cheers of a Sprint Center crowd made up of many Huskers fans among the 18,374. Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter played a fantastic match, getting 23 digs along with her 47 assists, plus the match-winning kill.
Holman and Annika Albrecht each had 13 kills, and freshman Jazz Sweet -- doing her own Foecke impersonation -- had 12.
It was the seventh consecutive time Nebraska has beaten Penn State, and this one ended the college careers of a great group of Nittany Lions seniors, including Simone Lee. The Big Ten player of the year, Lee had 18 kills and 15 digs Thursday.
But Foecke stood the tallest, and that didn't surprise her teammates.
"I'm just so proud of her," Albrecht said. "When in doubt, just give the ball to Foecke."