Nebraska volleyball caught a break when the second-seeded Minnesota Gophers fell to Oregon and now the Huskers are the favorite to get back to Final Four.
Friday was an eventful day for college volleyball fans, but Nebraska volleyball fans might have had the best day out of any fan base. After landing in arguably the toughest regional for the tournament, the Huskers once again have a legitimate shot to not only go to the Final Four but to win another National Championship.
For starters, they swept both Hofstra and Missouri in the first and second rounds of the tournament last weekend. After getting past those two opponents, the Huskers headed north to Minneapolis where they’d be spending the second weekend of tournament play.
While the match against Kentucky favored the Huskers purely due to conference play (the Big Ten is better than the SEC), the Wildcats were likely still angry about being knocked out of last year’s tournament by Nebraska. That right there is added motivation for anyone.
Well, after a few minutes into the match, it was clear that Nebraska had the edge in this one. Kentucky looked sloppy in the first set, compiling 13 errors, which gave Nebraska half of their points for set one. Without all of those errors, it’s a more competitive match-up.
While Kentucky competed a little more in the second set, the Wildcats still couldn’t get their offense going much. The broadcast mentioned that Kentucky hit just .119 in the first two sets combined and that shows just how good Nebraska is defensively.
Arguably the most impressive part of the match was how the Huskers completely shut down Leah Edmond, the SEC Player of the Year. Edmond was a major factor in last year’s match-up, but Nebraska had the answer to shutting her down, limiting her to a .040 hitting percentage. She had seven kills, but six hitting errors. Edmond was clearly frustrated with her lack of production and that’s what Nebraska does best.
Nebraska’s strategy has always been playing stout defense and that’s been the case for most of the year. They held Kentucky to a .165 hitting percentage and really put the Wildcats in a hole deep early on. This was a Kentucky team that hadn’t lost a match since September and wasn’t used to trailing, so when Nebraska came out and smoked them in the first set, that put Kentucky right where Nebraska wanted them.
Even when Kentucky took a big lead in the third set (thanks to hitting .400 through that point in set three), Nebraska didn’t panic. They kept playing their game, believed in each other, and fought all the way back to tie things up. Kentucky clearly wasn’t prepared and it showed big time with their errors.
All week long, Husker fans were expecting to see Minnesota for the third time this season. It made all the sense in the world, as the Gophers were the two-seed and basically had home field advantage throughout the tournament. Oregon stunned everyone, however, knocking Minnesota off in four sets.
Not having to face Minnesota is great for many reasons, but don’t overlook Oregon, folks. This is a team that beat the Gophers not once, but twice this season. That win very well could carry them all the way through the rest of this tournament. The Ducks are led by young coach Matt Ulmer, who has really done a tremendous job in his short time with the program.
Oregon is a great team, but Nebraska is hard to doubt at this point of the season. Mikaela Foecke plays her best volleyball in December and led the Huskers to victory on Friday with 14 kills and a .303 hitting percentage. Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins were at the top of their games too, with Sun posting 13 kills and Stivrins notching eight.
As for the Ducks, they have talent all around. That includes senior setter August Raskie, who notched a triple-double against Minnesota (ten kills, 60 assists, 11 kills), according to the NCAA’s website. Lindsey Vander Weide and Willow Johnson are also big-time contributors for the Ducks too, with Vander Weide posting 17 kills while Willow Johnson recorded 15.
While Cornhusker fans might be excited about not having to face Minnesota, this Nebraska/Oregon match will still be challenging. There’s no home field advantage now, so Nebraska has to do what they’ve always done best and that’s play great defense and make it count at the service line.
The Huskers recorded five service errors and had four service aces against Kentucky, so it wasn’t their best performance when it comes to serving. Their defense was top notch, however, and that was something Oregon experienced back in August, hitting .176 against the Huskers that night.
This isn’t going to be an easy match, but at this point, why would anyone doubt John Cook and Nebraska volleyball? Foecke, Stivrins, and Sun have been firing on all cylinders and Kenzie Maloney is a freaking magician when it comes to digging balls and making plays.
Foecke and Maloney are now 19-1 in tournament play in their careers at Nebraska, which is insane and shows they know how to win. Throw in that freshman setter Nicklin Hames is getting better every game and there’s no reason this team can’t make another championship run.
Go Big Red!