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It was a play this season during a match against Penn State when Nebraska volleyball player Kenzie Maloney went global thanks to making ESPN’s top 10 plays of the day on “SportsCenter.”

During the first set of the match, Maloney dove into the Nebraska bench to save the ball, keeping the play alive and allowing Nebraska to win a long rally. Nebraska lost that set, 27-25, but that play helped set the tone for a relentless effort on defense that led Nebraska to a five-set upset win and the start of a winning streak that has now reached eight matches going into the NCAA Tournament.

But really, that was just one more play on a long list of athletic and acrobatic plays made by Maloney, the steady senior libero who leads the charge for Nebraska’s No. 1-ranked defense, which holds opponents to an average hitting percentage of .130.

There was the play against Indiana, when Maloney sprinted 15 feet past the end line and made a one-handed save. And there are countless plays where Maloney dove into the play at the last moment, determined to not let the ball touch the floor on her watch.

Nebraska coach John Cook has another story he’s told a few times that shows Maloney’s effort and athleticism.

This play occurred last season during a match at Ohio State. Nebraska’s Sydney Townsend couldn’t control a dig, and the ball went flying off the court in the direction of the bleachers. Mikaela Foecke was playing in the middle of the back row, in the best position to save the ball. Maloney was also in the back row, but closer to the net. But Maloney sprinted, passed Foecke, dove and punched the ball up with one hand. Nebraska got the ball across, and won the point.

Cook laughs about plays like that.

“It happens all the time in practice,” he said.

Maloney is one of the best athletes the program has had. When it comes to the athletic testing results the team does a few times each year, Maloney holds the record for most points in the performance index, which combines a player’s results in the 10-yard dash, pro agility run, vertical jump and approach jump.

Now is the time of year when player awards will be announced. On Wednesday the all-Big Ten teams come out. In a few weeks the All-Americans will be announced. What case would Cook make for Maloney to be included?

“The argument I would make is she’s as good a passer as anybody in the country, and she’s as good of server as anybody in the country,” Cook said.

Maloney ranks in the top 10 in the Big Ten in both ace serves (0.31 per set) and digs (4.07 pet set). Nebraska being a good blocking team reduces Maloney’s chances of racking up digs.

“I think some coaches may look at that like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have seven digs a game,’ but she digs everything that comes to her,” Cook said. “She makes some plays that other liberos can’t make athletically.”

The surprise may be that Maloney only played volleyball in high school. She did play tennis when she was young. Maloney was an outside hitter in high school, using her athleticism to get kills despite only being 5-foot-8.

Nebraska worked hard to recruit Maloney, who was taking a risk by coming to Nebraska from Louisville, Kentucky.

“We really wanted her because we thought she would be a game-changer libero, and she has,” Cook said.

Maloney is athletic enough that she could probably do what others have done and play college beach volleyball at a different school on scholarship as a graduate student. But when the season ends, she’ll probably end her playing career and pursue a graduate degree with the goal of being a sports psychologist.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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