One of the mottos for the Nebraska volleyball team this season was very well known: “With each other, for each other.”
That motto showed up on homemade signs. Thousands of fans chanted it in Kansas City, Missouri, on the night earlier this month when the Huskers won the national championship, and again the next day under the direction of cheerleader/head coach John Cook during the welcome home celebration in Lincoln. Players often mentioned the motto in interviews.
The less-discussed motto was: "Why not us?"
And as it turns out, there was no good reason why the Huskers couldn’t be good, be great, be unstoppable, and ultimately be national champions.
Nebraska won 19 straight matches to end the season, the final one coming in a four-set victory against Florida in the NCAA final. The Huskers had become unstoppable.
There was a lot of talk by both Cook and the media about what the Huskers lost from the 2016 team, and rightfully so. That included two assistant coaches and four starters, including All-Americans Kadie and Amber Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes.
But what did the Huskers have back to start this season, and how did they get so good?
Cook said the players came up with the motto "Why not us?" Nebraska was ranked No. 5 in the preseason AVCA poll and No. 2 in the Big Ten coaches’ preseason poll, but those rankings are largely a reflection of the previous season and don’t always take into consideration what was lost from the year before.
The Nebraska players didn’t think expectations were very high for them. People were talking about 2016 national champion Stanford, and Penn State, with some of the greatest collections of talent that college volleyball has ever seen.
But many of the pieces required to be a good team were in the Nebraska locker room on the first day of practice, and Cook knew it.
He told the players as much, and then listed the reasons why. The Huskers had two of the most physical, dynamic middle blockers in the Big Ten Conference, Cook told the players, talking about Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins.
Nebraska also had back Mikaela Foecke, a proven outside hitter who who just had to show she could do even more as a six-rotation player. Also, setter Kelly Hunter, who had already led teams to Big Ten and national championships, and Kenzie Maloney, the new libero who had played two seasons as a defensive specialist.
From time to time a former Nebraska volleyball player will come up when coach John Cook is a…
“I said we have some really good players returning at some key positions,” Cook said. “I think any time you have a really good setter, and a really good libero, and a really good outside hitter, you have a chance to be pretty good. At least that gets you in the conversation. Those are three key spots. So that’s what we talked about, and part of what came out of that was, well, why not us? Why can’t we do this? So it was brilliant.”
Of course, the Huskers had two big question marks, at right-side hitter and the second outside hitter spot, but they went 2-for-2 on those.
At outside hitter, senior Annika Albrecht was a second-team All-American for her only season as a full-time starter. At right-side hitter, freshman Jazz Sweet made big plays when the Huskers needed them most, including 13 kills with a .375 hitting percentage against Penn State in the national semifinals.
Nebraska also had several players who had improved and developed from previous seasons.
One such player was senior Sydney Townsend. She ended up being a good three-rotation defensive specialist, but that wasn’t on Cook’s radar to start the year. The coach thought Townsend would be a serving sub, and Sweet would be a six-rotation player.
“I would go a lot off of (first-year assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand) because Tyler knew nothing,” Cook said. “He had no prejudice or previous thoughts or anything about anybody, and he’s, like, ‘God, Sydney is unbelievable.’ Every day he’d come in here and say, ‘Sydney is unbelievable. Did you see how many digs she made today?’ We kept talking about how we've got to get her on the court as much as we can, because she really went to another level.”
The Huskers’ second outside hitter could have been a major liability, but Albrecht turned into a strength, including recording 32 kills combined in two wins against Penn State.
“With Anni we had no idea,” Cook said. “Last January I said, ‘Anni, you have a chance to be a six-rotation player and here’s your time. And it may be that you don’t even have a sub and you’re not looking over your shoulder.’
“So I think Anni worked really hard. She changed her diet, she changed how hard she worked in the weight room, she did extra stuff with (strength coach Brian Kmitta) and she started studying video. Anni went to another level as a player, and for the first time in her life, she touched 10 feet, so that just tells you right there.”
It may sound a little crazy because of how good they already were, Cook said, but Holman and Stivrins are the two players who may have improved the most during the season.
“Bri was probably the best middle in the NCAA Tournament,” Cook said. “If you look at her stats, she was phenomenal. And how we measure blocking, she was off the charts. Bri played at a really, really high level.”
Holman achieving that took some work. When assistant coach Chris Tamas left Nebraska after last season to become a head coach, Holman was not happy. She’d soon be working with her third position coach since coming to Nebraska, because Dan Meske had previously left to be a head coach.
“I told Tyler the first day, ‘You’re going to have to find a way to connect with Bri, and it’s not going to be easy,'” Cook said. “So he took it on, and I think that was one of the key things that happened this year, was the relationship between Tyler and Bri and her willingness to work with him, and I think it paid off. And he told her, ‘It may not happen until later in the season, but it’s going to happen.’ And her stats, the way we evaluate it, she was a very-elite middle blocker, attacking and blocking.”
Foecke’s play in the back row could have also been a liability. But in the national semifinals against Penn State, she had 19 kills and 19 digs to outduel Big Ten Conference player of the year Simone Lee.
All those things happening helped provide an answer to the question, "Why not us?" and deliver the program’s second national championship in three years, and its fifth overall. This is the first Husker senior class to win two national championships.
This season, NU didn't lose a home match, celebrated a Big Ten championship on its home court and led a Nebraska takeover in Kansas City for the Final Four. Each of the past three times Nebraska reached the national championship match, it won the title: in 2006, 2015 and 2017. Remarkable.
“The thing I keep coming back to, and I said this at the celebration, is this state needed something like this,” Cook said. “Agriculture has been down, budget cuts, football. The state needed something like this, and it’s a great Christmas present to the state of Nebraska. And I heard a lot of people say is our bowl game was going down to Kansas City. I heard some tickets were going for $500.
“People are in love with this team and the journey. People are emailing me, like, ‘I was crying, and I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen by a Nebraska team.’ I think we inspired a state, and a Husker Nation.”
As a team, these Huskers just kept getting it done, including having 18 more kills and 30 more digs combined than their opponents in two matches at the Final Four.
This year’s team achieved what you’re always striving for, Cook said. The Huskers maxed out what they had.
If you consider the athletic ability of the players, and the amount of experience they had to start the season, the Huskers played as good of volleyball as they possibly could have, Cook said, and they did so for about 80 percent of the season.
“If we were going in a fantasy league, you wouldn’t be drafting Sydney or Anni before the season. You’d be taking Simone Lee,” Cook said. “You wouldn’t be taking Bri, you’d be taking (Florida’s Rhamat Alhassan). So this is not a great fantasy league team. So they way overachieved, and they maxed out what they had and they played great as a team.
“It’s magical when it happens, man. It is magical. And this year it happened.”