With a new setter in a new setting, defending champion Nebraska braces for rematch with Kentucky
Six weeks ago, Nebraska volleyball had lost four of five and hardly looked like a team capable of defending its national championship.
That was October. This is December.
The five-time national champions do some of their best work this time of year. Nebraska has won 10 straight and swept its last five matches, including against Hofstra and Missouri to open NCAA tournament play.
"I think our team is peaking and we've really improved," coach John Cook said. "Maybe we're the most improved team in the country. I'm excited to go to Minneapolis and see what we can do."
While the final four is in Minneapolis, Nebraska isn't there -- yet. The Cornhuskers (26-6) are in the Sweet 16 for the 24th time in 25 years where they'll face Kentucky (26-4) on Friday (2 ET, ESPNU) in a regional semifinal, also in Minneapolis.
The teams met last year in the NCAA tournament one round later on the Wildcats' home floor. Nebraska, miffed about not hosting the regional, played spoiler, winning 3-1 to reach its third final four in as many years.
But this one is a rematch in name only, Cook said.
"They're different than they were last year; we're different than we were last year," he said. "We have eight new players. Half our team -- this is all new for them. It's a different world for me and this team."
A year ago, Nebraska won behind setter Kelly Hunter, who shared most outstanding player honors at the final four with hitter Mikaela Foecke. While Foecke is back and coming off a season-high .667 hitting percentage against Missouri, Hunter graduated.
Kentucky also graduated a pair of honorable mention All-Americans in Kaz Brown and Ashley Dusek. This year's team features four freshmen and one junior-college transfer.
But the Wildcats also boast SEC player of the year Leah Edmond and all-SEC setter Madison Lilley, who said earlier this year that she learned from watching Hunter.
"While we were playing against her, it was cool to see how motivated she was," said the second-team All-American. "That's something I strive to bring to our team, being that driven and motivated to get the win no matter what."
Meanwhile, Nebraska is quarterbacked by freshman Nicklin Hames. The Big Ten's been a learning curve for her, Cook said, and she's better for it, particularly the patch when the Huskers faced six top-10 opponents in a month. The ball comes off her hands sooner these days, and she's more in tune with her hitters, including Foecke, a first-team All-American. Accordingly, a team that hit .210 in its five October losses improved to .350 or better in its last five matches.
Foecke didn't have an error over the weekend, hitting .543 with 24 kills.
"Nicklin's getting our hitters in good position and figuring [out] how to set," Cook said. "She still makes freshman mistakes, but she's a competitor and a high-IQ volleyball player, and she's made major progress."
Hames earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten along with middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach, third in the league in blocks. They developed under the wing of seniors Foecke and defensive specialist Kenzie Maloney, who "set the tone for what we do," Cook said.
Unlike Nebraska, Kentucky didn't struggle in its conference. In fact, the Wildcats were perfect in the SEC for the first time since 1988. They won their 23rd consecutive match in eliminating Purdue in the second round.
While Nebraska took its lumps in conference, the Wildcats started 0-3 against non-conference competition, dropping matches to Creighton, USC and Northern Iowa -- teams already eliminated this postseason. Kentucky hasn't lost since falling at Texas 3-1 on Sept. 7.
Coach Craig Skinner was actually surprised when his team was ranked as high as No. 5 to start the season; those early losses allowed the Wildcats to fly under the radar.
Like Nebraska, the Wildcats are peaking at the right time. They swept the SEC awards with Edmond named player of the year, Alli Stumler named freshman of the year, Gabby Curry, libero of the year and Skinner, coach of the year.
Unlike last season, the winner of this match doesn't get that final-four reward. Instead, if seeds hold, No. 2 Minnesota will be waiting on its home floor.
Noted Cook, "We've been in the toughest regional before, and I'm used to that."
In Friday's other regional semifinals:
• The No. 2 Gophers (27-3) host Oregon (22-10), one of three opponents to beat them this season. The Ducks dominated every statistical category in upsetting Minnesota 3-1 on Sept. 7 in Palo Alto, California. The rematch is at 4:30 ET on ESPN3.
• No. 1 overall seed Stanford (30-1) welcomes fellow Pac-12 team Washington State (23-9) to Palo Alto (8:30 ET, ESPN3). The last time the Cardinal dropped a set was to the Cougars on Nov. 16, a 3-1 victory. Washington State set up the rematch with four-set wins over Northern Arizona and Tennessee.
• Former champions collide in the Palo Alto opener when Penn State (25-7) plays Washington (20-12) at 6 ET on ESPNU. Penn State swept Howard and Syracuse to advance, while Washington topped Saint Mary's before upsetting Creighton in a sweep. Penn State is one of six Big Ten teams in the final 16; Washington is one of four Pac-12 teams.
• No. 3 Illinois (30-3) is back in the Sweet 16 for the second season in a row, and is set to welcome Marquette (28-6) at noon ET on ESPNU. Illinois is the lone top seed to drop a set so far in the tournament, but the Illini responded well after dropping the second frame to Louisville in the second round. Marquette swept High Point and Cincinnati on its way to Champaign, Illinois.
• After defeating Cal Poly and No. 11 USC, unseeded San Diego is in the regional semifinals for the first time since 2013. The Toreros (18-12) face Wisconsin (24-6) at 2:30 ET (ESPN3) in Champaign.
• Reigning national runner-up Florida (26-6) didn't get seeded, but the Gators advanced to the Sweet 16 without dropping a set, sweeping Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast. The Gators travel to Provo, Utah, to take on No. 4 BYU (29-1), hosting a regional for the first time since 1986. Count on the Cougars to pack the fans in Smith Field House (6:30 ET, ESPN3). They reached their seventh straight regional semifinal by sweeping Utah on Saturday in front of 5,183, the second-largest crowd to attend a game there. The good news for Florida: freshman Thayer Hall, out nearly all of November with an injury, is back in the starting lineup.
• Texas (22-4) and Michigan (24-9) travel to Provo, where the Longhorns will be making their 13th straight Sweet 16 appearance (4 ET, ESPNU). The Longhorns, who have won 12 straight, are the lone Big 12 team remaining in the field. Michigan is coming off a five-set upset of Pittsburgh.