Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Finishing Another Magical Year

By Brian Rosenthal

Less than 24 hours later, Kenzie Maloney had not yet watched, beginning to end, Nebraska’s epic five-set victory over Illinois from Thursday night.

Given the upcoming schedule for Maloney and her teammates, she may not have time to sit down and enjoy that NCAA Tournament Final Four match until sometime next spring.

Whenever she does, the Nebraska senior libero may notice how the Huskers’ 22-25, 16-25, 25-20, 25-23, 15-11 triumph greatly symbolized their entire season. In both instances, after a tricky start and some ugly bumps in the middle, Nebraska learned, persevered and rallied to put itself into position for something special.

No. 6 Nebraska (29-6) will face No. 1 Stanford (33-1) on Saturday at 8 p.m. for an unprecedented second straight national championship. The Huskers have already made school history with four straight Final Fours, and Maloney and fellow senior Mikaela Foecke will play in three title matches over their four years.

“It’s really hard to wrap my head around that,” Maloney told reporters Friday. “Like I said, I’ve said it before, I know this team has believed from the very beginning of our season we would be here, be in this position. So we’re not going to be surprised by anything.”

Nebraska coach John Cook raved last season how satisfying it felt to coach a team many felt would be in rebuilding mode, and mold it into a national champion.

And here he is, on the verge of doing it again.

“Well, last year was a magical year for us,” Cook said. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t get much better than this.’ I think this year has gone up another notch. We’ve had so many new players, playing so many young players.”

Indeed, Nebraska replaced half its starting lineup and has eight freshmen on roster. Knowing how knew and young this team would be, Cook anointed Maloney and Foecke as team captains at the turn of the calendar year, much to their surprise.

“Last January, as soon as we got back to school,” Cook said, “I called those guys in, said, ‘Here is the deal. You guys are captains.’ They both looked at me like, ‘We’re captains already?’ Yeah, it’s by default, because we really don’t have anybody else. You’re going to be the captains.

“I don’t think either one of those guys were going through their career, ‘I can’t wait to be a captain.’ But the work we did to develop those two as leaders, the work we did to bring everybody in, build this team, get to where we’re playing for a national championship, it’s pretty special.”

The first two sets of Thursday’s national semifinals match against Illinois didn’t go well for the veteran Husker duo, or the team in general. Illinois served tough. Nebraska’s passing broke down.

Yet being in a 2-0 hole to the nation’s No. 3 team didn’t faze them, especially not Foecke. She regrouped her team, much to the surprise of … well, nobody.

“I think this season, especially this tournament, I’ve been looking up to our captains right here,” Nebraska transfer hitter Lexi Sun said. “I think, obviously, they’ve been in this position before. They know how it’s done, what needs to be done.

“I think we obviously weren’t doing that in the first two games. I think just looking up to them, leaning on them, trusting in them.”

Said Cook of Foecke: “I think it’s part of her upbringing, coming from a farm where you’re tough, you don’t complain, you just find a way. She’s got it in other DNA. She’s proven it over and over and over.”

Now, she’s got one final chance in her career to prove it yet again, against a Stanford team that’s as talented as any in America, and one that’s looking to finish the season where it began in the preseason – ranked No. 1.

The Cardinal are 33-1, and avenged that only loss, to BYU in August, in Thursday night’s other national semifinal.

Foecke said the biggest key for the Huskers, underdogs yet again, will be to take the match point by point, brush off any bad ones and always look forward.

“I think the biggest thing for us is just playing Nebraska volleyball,” Foecke said. “Focusing on our side of the net, doing the things we can control. Hopefully we shouldn't have anything else to worry about.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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