Player of the Year watch: From hog haven to limelight for Nebraska's Mikaela Foecke
Each week during the volleyball season, we'll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.
Nobody questions Mikaela Foecke's ability to seize the big moment.
Remember, the Nebraska senior has twice been named Most Outstanding Player of the final four, including last fall behind 20 kills, 14 digs, three blocks and an ace to give the Huskers their second national title in three years.
Foecke's monster effort played out before 18,516 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, so no wonder she wasn't fazed last week by 14,022 at CHI Health Center in Omaha, the single largest regular-season crowd in NCAA volleyball history. They were there for Nebraska vs. Creighton, and they saw a doozey won by the Huskers 3-2.
"They always say Nebraska fans are the best in the nation, so we definitely expected that," said Foecke, who dismissed the idea of nerves ever being an issue for her. "The majority of the time the fans are on our side and they just want us to succeed, so they get excited after big points and we get excited. It's just a thrill."
The Huskers' co-captain delivered plenty of those, lifting Nebraska out of an 0-2 hole over their instate rival, ranked 14th at the time. Foecke had a career night in kills with 25 to go with 13 digs, five blocks and four aces, Predictably, the 6-foot-3 outside hitter shined in the final set, going on her own 3-0 run at a critical stretch. She followed her 25th kill that put Nebraska ahead 11-9 with a pair of aces.
Creighton had never taken a set from Nebraska before, but Foecke wasn't about to be on the wrong side of history. "The first two sets we were up and down; we'd win a few points then lose four or five," she said. "We went into the locker room and regrouped and took a deep breath and talked about what Nebraska volleyball is all about. We slowly worked ourselves back into it and were able to walk away with a win."
Another strong performance -- nine kills, seven digs, two blocks and an ace in Nebraska's sweep of Iowa State on Sunday earned her Co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Nebraska, of course, is 6-1, ranked fourth in the nation.
While it's easy to assume Foecke picked up right where she left off last season, this year's version is getting it done alongside a cast that includes three and sometimes four freshman starters, setter Nicklin Hames among them. Kelly Hunter, Nebraska's marvelous setter from last year who shared co-MOP honors with Foecke at the final four, graduated along with four other seniors. Backup setter Hunter Atherton transferred to North Carolina.
"It's a big adjustment because she was with Kelly for two years," Huskers coach John Cook said. "Mikaela is your typical farm girl. She doesn't complain. She gets it done."
The native of West Point, Iowa, which has a population of 954 and is host of the state's largest Sweet Corn Festival every August, embraces her grandmother's mantra about life: "There's no point complainin'. Just do what you got to do."
Not that she was rising at 5 a.m. to milk cows and bale hay. She rejects that stereotypical farm girl image. Foecke's main chore involved tending to hogs and preparing them to show at 4-H competitions.
"Most of the times my pigs showed me," Foecke admitted in her typical dry wit. "Pigs are pretty lazy and you walk around the arena and the more you walk them, the better they walk, which is what the judge wants. My pigs usually ran around the arena. I'd smile at the judge and walk quickly after them."
Because Foecke got the glory -- and the cash -- when her hogs placed, she was responsible for their care. "If I wanted the money at the end of the year, my dad said I had to put all my effort into it."
That work ethic carried over to volleyball (and the classroom, too. The animal science major just completed her applications for veterinary school, where admission is highly selective).
Before she ever wore a Big Red jersey, Foecke was revered as one of Iowa's most decorated high school athletes. The Holy Trinity High senior became the first Iowan to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in 2014. An AVCA All-America honorable mention as a freshman and sophomore, she picked up second-team honors last fall.
Minus Hunter, more is expected of her beyond being the team's biggest hitter and best server as she was last year in her first season of being a six-rotation player. Along with senior Kenzie Maloney, Foecke is acclimating the five freshmen to all that goes along with wearing that Nebraska uniform.
"I think it's fun because it's like being a freshman all over again," she said. "You get to see everything they're going through and the transition they're making. You can share your personal perspective and what happened to you. Just helping them and watching them grow has helped me grow as a player and as a person."
A sophomore is expected to arrive on the scene soon. Lexi Sun, who transferred to Nebraska from Texas, has yet to appear in a match due to an undisclosed injury. Cook wants her to be conditioned to play a full match. Sun has been practicing regularly but, "We're building her up to play the entire way."
Meanwhile, it's typical for Foecke to lighten the mood in practice and games with a sarcastic expression or something physical, often making light of her own clumsiness.
Against Creighton, following a Capri Davis dig and kill, Foecke gave her freshman teammate a good-natured push. "She fell to the ground," Foecke laughed. "It was a big point."
At the same time, Foecke is looking to sharpen her technical skills. She credits herself for improvement in serve-receive. But she tempers that by grumbling about her inability to tip and roll slide -- two skills she handles in practice, but, "When it comes to a game, my hand hits it too hard, and it doesn't do what I want to do."
For now, at least. Most of the time, no matter what the challenge, Foecke finds a way to get it done.