Nebraska Volleyball has done it again! The Huskers swept their way through the first four rounds of the tournament and are heading to the Final Four, set to take place on Thursday night. This Final Four seemed unlikely a few months ago.
Nebraska volleyball has been clutch over the last few years, but a Final Four really didn’t seem likely this year for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the Cornhuskers graduated five seniors from their 2017 National Championship team and had two other players transfer to other schools.
That meant this year’s team would look a lot different and it did indeed, as Nebraska had eight newcomers to their squad in 2018. Out of those eight new faces, four of them would be impact players for the Huskers. That’s another reason a big run in December seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year.
The youth of the team showed big time in Nebraska’s first match of the season, when they fell to Florida in four sets, looking sloppy in the process. The Huskers had a freshman setter in Nicklin Hames, a freshman middle blocker in Callie Schwarzenbach, and a freshman defensive specialist in Megan Miller all playing in their first collegiate volleyball game and the nerves definitely shone through.
Another big reason a Final Four appearance seemed unrealistic two months ago is that Big Ten volleyball is TOUGH. The young Huskers experienced that for themselves in the month of October, as they’d play eight matches and went 3-5 during that span. Those five losses were all against ranked opponents with three of them all occurring within a week.
After Nebraska dropped their third straight match on October 20th (which came at the hands of Minnesota), they were 6-4 in the conference and looked as lost as ever. Sure, we all knew this program would rebound and make the tournament, but it was an awful stretch for the Huskers. It also included two losses at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, where the team had gone undefeated the season prior.
After they dropped their fifth match in the month of October, it really felt like this wasn’t going to be Nebraska’s year and I think most fans were okay with that. This program has given us so much to be proud of over the years and with such a young team, seeing them improve was the most important thing at that point.
Then… Something changed. The calendar flipped to November and the Huskers were trying to put their rough October behind them. It wasn’t going to be easy, as their first match of November was a home match against Penn State, a team that had beaten Nebraska in five sets several weeks prior.
If you were to ask a Nebraska volleyball fan what the turning point was this season, many would probably point to this very match. In particular, an INCREDIBLE play by Nebraska libero Kenzie Maloney where she put her body on the line and made an insane save. Maloney was chasing the ball down and ran into the chairs on the sideline in order to keep the ball in play.
Lexi Sun was able to lob it over from there and the point played on. Nebraska eventually won the point thanks to Callie Schwarzenbach knocking the ball down for the kill and for the point. While it seems silly to say that one play saved the season, it really does feel that way because momentum has been on Nebraska’s side ever since.
Just think about it. Nebraska hasn’t lost a match since Maloney made that play and have dropped just four sets since then (two of those coming in that very match). The Huskers haven’t lost a set in tournament play and this team looks entirely different than they did during that October losing streak.
When the tournament began and Nebraska was put in Minnesota’s region of the bracket, it was certainly intimidating because the Gophers handled the Huskers in both of their meetings. Oregon knocking off Minnesota on Friday night was huge, but I honestly think had the Huskers played the hometown Golden Gophers, they’d have won the match and made it to the Final Four regardless.
Why do I think that? Because momentum is clearly on Nebraska’s side and that losing streak in October served its purpose for this team.
Even when they were losing matches, Nebraska never got blown out. They were never swept during that span and always played their opponents tough. That seemed promising at the time and now we know it’s because this is a very good team that can definitely win it all again in 2018.
Regardless of what happens on Thursday night against Illinois (one of the teams to hand Nebraska a loss in that rough October), I’m SO proud of this team! A Final Four seemed highly unlikely after dropping five of six matches in three weeks, but here we are.
Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke have now officially made it to the Final Four in every season of their career at Nebraska. It’s no coincidence that Maloney was the one who might have singlehandedly saved Nebraska’s season and now she and Foecke, her partner in crime, have the chance to win three championships with the Huskers. Dynamic duo indeed.
Next up, as I mentioned a bit ago, a date with Illinois on Thursday night in Minneapolis. Nebraska split the season series against the Fighting Illini, winning 3-1 in Champaign and losing 3-1 in Lincoln. It’s going to be one heck of a match and I, for one, can’t wait.
GO BIG RED!