Nebraska does it with defense, upends Florida for fifth NCAA volleyball title
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter recalled a moment with teammate Lauren Stivrins two days earlier in the semifinals, in which the two were discussing where Hunter should push the ball in the offense.
"Feed the beast," Stivrins told her, meaning Mikaela Foecke.
Foecke had 20 kills and hit .250, Hunter had 37 assists, and No. 5 Nebraska defeated No. 2 Florida in four sets (25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16) Saturday to capture the program's fifth national championship.
Foecke, who was named the final four's co-Most Outstanding Player with Hunter, led the match with her 20 kills, which came on 56 swings. She finished with a final four-high 39 kills after posting 19 against Penn State on Thursday, showcasing her ability to perform on the biggest stage.
"Normally we don't have a go-to, and I think it's Foecke's thing to step up in the tournament, and she did that again," Hunter said. "She was just hot."
Coach John Cook feels the same way.
"Mikaela is a special talent," Cook said. "She rises to the occasion."
Hunter's 37 assists were far and away the match high, and her two service aces were as well.
"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," Florida coach Mary Wise said.
Nebraska was able to grind out a first-set victory despite both teams struggling offensively and followed that up with a commanding second set. Florida refused to go down in a sweep, coming back strong in the third before ultimately falling in the fourth and decisive frame.
Getting over that initial hump was key for the Cornhuskers to gain an edge, and Foecke said it came as a result of shaking any initial nerves.
"I think we just kind of settled in," she said. "It's the first set of the national championship, you're obviously going to have some jitters, and you're going to want to pound every single ball."
Nebraska flipped the script on the defensive-minded Florida, as its suffocating defense outshined what was the second-best team in the country in terms of opponent hitting percentage (.136). The Cornhuskers allowed the Gators to hit just .141, their lowest mark of the season, and four players finished with double-digit digs.
Shainah Joseph and Carli Snyder each finished with 11 kills for Florida, both hitting less than .200. Snyder led the team with 15 digs as well. Caroline Knop finished with 12 digs, giving her the single-postseason school record of 93.
This is not a befitting ending for a Florida team that was so consistently successful throughout the year, one that lost just once before this, and to a top-10 team.
While the Gators can't rewrite a better ending to their story, they aren't letting the defeat erase what came before.
"This loss isn't going to define our season," Knop said. "This isn't going to define Florida volleyball. So many great things happened this year."
The dynasty continues
The win marks the fifth national championship in program history for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have won the title two out of the last three seasons and have made the final four all three of those years as well.
Keep on cooking
This is Cook's fourth national championship, all coming with Nebraska. He is the fourth coach to win at least four titles and just the second to do so in the 64-team tournament era.
For most of the Cornhuskers' upperclassmen, this is their second national title. Achieving that feat even once is something every player dreams of, so to do it twice is something they feel to be almost surreal.
"Winning a national championship kind of seems like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and so to be here a second time is something that I'm super grateful for," Foecke said.
Kenzie Maloney led the Cornhuskers with 15 digs, as she often has throughout the season. However, another part of her stat line was anything but normal.
Maloney logged two kills on a perfect two swings. Entering the match, she had registered one kill across her entire three-year career as a starter, coming during a September match against UMBC earlier this season.
A crowd of 18,516 crammed into the Sprint Center to watch the match, resulting in both a sellout and an NCAA record for national championship attendance.