The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship campaign for the overachieving Huskers, who capped an unexpected return to the pinnacle of their sport by defeating Florida in four sets in the NCAA title match on Dec. 16.
Thousands of Big Red fans made the trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, where a record crowd of 18,000-plus viewed the deciding contest.
While tradition-rich Husker football has been in the doldrums for two decades, the equally tradition-rich volleyball program has carried the school’s elite athletic banner. NU volleyball and its gridiron brothers have now won five NCAA titles apiece. This was NU’s second volleyball crown in three years and the fourth under head coach John Cook since succeeding program architect Terry Pettit in 2000.
Cook was an assistant under Pettit, whose stellar work at Nebraska—including one NCAA title (along with his overall contributions to the sport)—landed him in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. The current Huskers volleyball coach joined his predecessor as an inductee in the fall of 2017. Cook’s formal induction came only hours before facing the No. 1 seed Penn State in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
Cook has said the 2017 Huskers, led by Papillion native and setter extraordinaire Kelly Hunter, were a joy to coach because they actually lived out their season slogan: “with each other, for each other.” That mantra got tested early when the young, inexperienced squad opened the season without an injured Hunter on the court and promptly suffered two losses—one against future NCAA finals opponent Florida. But the Huskers stayed the course and with Hunter back at setter the rest of the way, they rallied to finish the non-conference schedule with a 7-3 mark. The team really found its groove in tough Big Ten play, going 19-1 to share the league championship with arch-rival Penn State, and finished the regular season 26-4.
Hunter and fellow seniors Briana Holman (middle blocker) and Annika Albrecht (outside hitter) led the way with junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Two dynamic freshmen—middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Jazz Sweet—rounded out the balanced team volleyball approach that became NU’s trademark. No superstars. Just solid players executing their roles and having each other’s backs, whether at the net or in the back-row.
Hunter, Albrecht, and Foecke did earn All-America honors.
Months before seeing Penn State in the semifinals, on Sept. 22, NU dealt the No. 1-ranked and star-studded Nittany Lions their only regular-season loss by sweeping them at Happy Valley. The Huskers earned the right to host a first-round NCAA Tournament playoff in Lincoln, where fans jammed the Devaney Center. Fifth-seeded NU swept both its foes to advance to regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU downed Colorado and host Kentucky, dropping only one set in the process.
For their national semifinal match in K.C., the Huskers drew Big Ten nemesis and No. 1 overall seed Penn State. In an epic classic, the Big Red prevailed in five sets. Then, in the ensuing final against Florida, NU avenged that early season loss to the Gators in capturing collegiate volleyball’s top prize. Hunter and Foecke were named co-outstanding players of the tournament.
In 2018, NU loses Hunter, Holman, and Albrecht—look for at least one to be the latest Husker to make the U.S. national team—but the team otherwise returns with the core stable of their 2017 championship team. NU will add four top recruits to the mix, too. As defending champs, no one will underestimate the Huskers this time. A key to the season will be finding a setter to replace Hunter, the team’s on-court quarterback. Incoming freshman Nicklin Hames may just be the heir apparent in that key role.
But you can bet that Cook & Co. will stress the benefits of playing team volleyball in search of another title.
To learn more about how volleyball has become the top sport in Nebraska (and how Omaha plays an important role in the talent pipeline) be sure to pick up the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine featuring Leo Adam Biga’s cover story.