From low to high, Nebraska comes together under Kelly Hunter to win its fifth national title
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kelly Hunter's mother, Lori, was a setter for Nebraska, and her sister, Lindsey, a setter for Missouri. Lindsey got as far as the elite eight for the Tigers in 2005, but Kelly -- 12 years younger -- said she actually doesn't remember too much of her sister's volleyball career.
"Honestly, I just played around in the gymnastics room half the time during her games," Hunter said. "But my sister was always encouraging and giving me little heads-up about what it was going to be like. Throughout the recruiting process, she said, 'Visit as many places as you can; you want to be educated on everywhere and make the best choice.'"
But was there really any other choice than the Huskers for the Nebraska native? As she and her teammates celebrated winning the national championship Saturday at a Sprint Center filled mostly with giddy Nebraska fans, the answer clearly is: "Nah." She was born to be a Husker.
"My dream as a kid, watching Nebraska volleyball players, was, 'That's what I want to be,'" said Hunter, who was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and played at nearby Papillion-La Vista South High School. "I know there are so many girls in the state of Nebraska who feel that exact same way."
Likely even more now, as the No. 5 seed Huskers earned the program's fifth NCAA title with a 3-1 win over No. 2 seed Florida. Hunter, a senior, and junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke were named co-most outstanding players for the championship. Hunter finished with 37 assists, six kills and eight digs. Foecke, who was the most outstanding player in 2015, had 20 kills and 14 digs.
Nebraska's previous titles came in 1995 under coach Terry Pettit and in 2000, 2006 and 2015 under John Cook.
Cook became the fourth Division I women's volleyball coach to win at least four NCAA championships, joining Penn State's Russ Rose with seven, John Dunning with five (three with Stanford and two at Pacific) and Don Shaw with four at Stanford.
Cook has always been big on his team having slogans, and this year for the Huskers, there were two: "With each other, for each other" and "Why not us?"
But there was a reason why many thought it would be tough for the Huskers to do this. Nebraska lost three All-Americans from the 2016 team that made it to the national semifinals. The Huskers, without an injured Hunter, lost both their matches to begin this season, to Oregon and Florida.
But by the time the Huskers avenged that loss to the Gators on Saturday, they were fully a powerhouse team. That developed over the course of this season.
A surprise loss to Northern Iowa in Omaha on Sept. 16 irritated Cook. He challenged his team to play up to the standards they were capable of. Which they did. Nebraska lost just once more -- at Wisconsin on Oct. 11 -- and finished the season on a 19-match winning streak.
There was one big scare before they got to Saturday's final, though, as they faced match point in the fourth set of their semifinal against Penn State on Thursday. But two Nittany Lions got tangled up on that point, and Nebraska won it and went on to survive in five sets.
Saturday, the Huskers -- who are used to big crowds -- looked more at ease early on in front of a record 18,516 at Sprint Center. No. 2 seed Florida appeared more nervous, and really struggled with mistakes and poor hitting as the Huskers took the first two sets 25-22 and 25-17.
The Gators, the co-SEC champions with Kentucky, settled down and looked more like themselves in the third set, taking it 25-18. They were hopeful of winning their first NCAA title, which also would have been the first for the SEC and the first time a female coach, Mary Wise, took the title.
But it wasn't to be, as the Gators lost just their second match of the season. Nebraska reasserted its dominance in the fourth set, winning 25-16. The winning point came on a kill from Foecke, of course.
Hunter, an AVCA first-team All-American this season, said the chemistry of this group was the best for any team she has ever played on. Perhaps because it was not really a superstar squad, but more a team on which everyone had to pull her weight to make it work.
"We know that we all have each other's backs," Hunter said. "No matter what happens, we're in it together. It's been kind of a freeing year for me, and I think for everyone else, as well."
Perhaps that's because last year, when the Huskers were defending their 2015 title, the pressure really did weigh on them. They had most of their team back after the championship and were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But they were almost swept in the regional semifinals before rallying to beat Penn State. They seemed to right themselves with a sweep of Washington to send them to the final four.
But there, they played poorly in a national semifinal loss, getting swept by Texas.
Volleyball teams at the final four always sign autographs in the concourse of the arena after the semifinal matches. Asked how bummed out she felt last year doing the autograph session following such a dispiriting loss, Foecke said, "I don't even remember. I completely blacked it out."
This year, the Huskers started ranked No. 5 in the AVCA preseason poll. They fell as far as No. 14 after the Northern Iowa loss. Beating Penn State on Sept. 22 got the Huskers back in the top 10, but they were never ranked higher than No. 4.
After sharing the Big Ten title with Penn State, which got the NCAA's No. 1 seed, the Huskers got the fifth seed, which meant they didn't get a chance to host a regional. But they went to Lexington, Kentucky, and beat the host Wildcats.
Ultimately, external expectations never were as high this season for the Huskers as their internal hopes were. They played more pressure-free, for the most part. And by Saturday, they were in amazing sync as champions once again.
"We played great team volleyball because we had a whole team fighting for each other," Cook said. Then, pointing to all the red-clad fans applauding after the match, he added, "There's no place like Nebraska."