Mikaela Foecke does a number on Florida, leads Nebraska to national championship
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As if two Big Ten volleyball championships and two national championships wasn't enough, add this to the Mikaela Foecke file:
Most Outstanding Player in the biggest game in the sport, twice for the junior with the bionic arm. Nebraska flattened Florida 3-1 behind 20 kills from Foecke, who also added 14 digs, three blocks and an ace in leading the Cornhuskers to their second NCAA title in three years and fifth overall.
"The first time, I thought was extra-special; winning a national championship seems like a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Foecke, who also picked up Most Outstanding Player honors in 2015. "I know what it takes now. In 2015, we had a lot of stars. This year, it was about team chemistry and how we could win as a team. That really showed."
Unlike two years ago, this time Foecke had to share the honor with her partner in the one-two punch, Cornhuskers setter Kelly Hunter. The senior finished with 37 assists, eight digs and six kills without an error.
The two generally share a comfortable chemistry, usually over burgers in Lincoln, but on this night, it was in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a volleyball national championship -- 18,516 at Sprint Center.
Hunter runs a balanced offense, but admittedly, Foecke was her go-to against the Gators. "What did she have? Like 20 kills? That's ridiculous," Hunter said.
Hunter actually took middle blocker Lauren Stivrins aside earlier in the tournament and mentioned setting one for her.
"Feed the beast," Stivrins told her.
Foecke took 56 swings, more than double any other Husker, finishing with a .250 hitting percentage. The bigger the point, the better she played. Her hammer ended the first set 25-22, and an even more emphatic rocket ended the second 25-17. She had four kills in the fourth set and two blocks.
Foecke earned a match-high 22.5 points. Briana Holman was second among the Huskers for points with 10.
Foecke didn't just have a memorable final four, she thrived in this NCAA tournament. Nebraska's most lethal outside hitter amassed 25 kills in her two matches in the Lexington Regional, including 18 in the upset of fourth-seeded Kentucky.
No surprise, she was named Most Outstanding Player there, too.
While Penn State's Simone Lee was the Big Ten player of the year, it was Foecke's dominant performance of 19 kills and 19 digs against the Nittany Lions in Thursday's semifinal that propelled the Huskers to an exhilarating, five-set victory.
As good as Foecke was two years ago in this same spot when her 19 kills against Texas lifted the program to its fourth NCAA title, she became an even more significant player this season. The Huskers lost four seniors, three of them starters, from last season's final four team. Foecke had never been a six-rotation player until 2017.
This year, it was about team chemistry and how we could win as a team.Mikaela Foecke
Her arm strength was never in doubt, but did she have the arsenal to pass, dig and be a force in the back row? Early-season struggles didn't last long. Foecke finished the season with eight double-doubles and 38 aces, the most on the team.
Coach John Cook said the native of West Point, Iowa, was a middle blocker in high school and that during the recruiting process, he told her that by her junior season at Nebraska, he wanted her play the back row, too.
"She worked really hard to get to that point," Cook said. "It's very rewarding to see players blossom like that."
Foecke is the fourth player to twice earn Most Outstanding Player honors at the national championship, joining Penn State's Lauren Cacciamani (1998-99), Megan Hodge (2007-08) and USC's Keao Burdine (2002-03).
Everyone in the locker room wanted a picture with Foecke, holding up the national championship trophy for what she hopes isn't the last time. Remember, she's got one season to go.
"I've got another year, and you never want to lose before this game and you don't want to lose in this game," she said. "Every year, this is the goal."