Nebraska and Penn State needed five sets to determine a winner during a college volleyball match played Nov. 2 in Lincoln, because, of course they did.
Five of the past seven matches between Penn State and Nebraska over three years have gone five sets, including two in the NCAA Tournament.
This time, Nebraska rallied to beat Penn State by winning the final two sets, including in the fifth set 15-8.
That win came after an October to forget for Nebraska, when it lost five of its last seven matches of that month. Some doubt had set in.
But after beating Penn State, Nebraska had a good result to reinforce all the work it had done in practice, and showed it really may have learned some lessons during those losses.
Over the final two sets, Nebraska had a .292 hitting percentage and held Penn State to .041. Lexi Sun was having a match to forget, but then had one to remember with six kills on nine attempts in the fifth set. Nebraska had 20 blocks in the match.
Penn State was ranked seventh, and it remains Nebraska’s biggest victory of the season. After that, Nebraska had a win against the type of team it would need to beat in one of the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“It kind of shows us what we’re capable of, and where we can go from here,” Husker sophomore Lauren Stivrins said.
Nebraska hasn’t lost since that match and takes an eight-match winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskers needs to win six more times for a repeat national championship. Nebraska’s 24-6 record is the reflection of a season with several new players in the starting lineup and playing in the brutally tough Big Ten Conference.
But as you think about sixth-ranked Nebraska’s tough path to a fourth consecutive NCAA Final Four, remember this: Nebraska was ranked No. 5 when it won its two most recent national championships.
Now, here are 17 more memorable moments, quotes and stats from the season:
1. Let’s begin with a few awards. The best quote of the season came from Stivrins, after Mikaela Foecke not only had 15 kills, but also a team-high 29 digs in that win against Penn State.
“I’m really proud of Foecke,” Stivrins said. “We were joking in the locker room after the game and I said, ‘Foecke, I take back every unathletic joke I ever made about you. You were lights-out.’”
2. The runner-up, same category: “For me, I thought I had some basic understanding of how to play volleyball, but then I got here and everything was completely structured different,” freshman Capri Davis said. Now you can understand why coach John Cook has called this team, with eight new players, a work in progress.
3. Best bromance: It’s got to be Nebraska football coach Scott Frost and Cook. The players joke with Cook that Frost is his BFF (best friend forever). Frost gave a speech to the volleyball team after a match last week.
And then there’s what happened during one of the first football games of the season. When he’s able, Cook watches the football games on the sideline near the Nebraska bench. After Nebraska scored a touchdown, Frost walked by, slapped hands with Cook and walked away. Amazing.
4. One of the comments on social media about Frost’s speech to the volleyball team was this: So cool to hear this successful man talk to these women about wanting his male team to emulate them.
5. I got another reminder of how good and consistent the program has been this season. I was looking in the media guide to find the last time Nebraska had lost three consecutive matches in the same season, which is what happened in October. I just kept scanning, and scanning and scanning. It hadn’t happened since 1997. And if the schedule had been different, it may not have. The three losses were each on the road, against Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
6. Nebraska won seven consecutive matches against Penn State over three seasons before losing to the Nittany Lions the first time they played this season on Oct. 13. That streak is one of the most remarkable things I remember while covering the team. Another is when Nebraska swept Texas in the 2015 national championship match.
7. It has been a few months, but we shouldn’t forget about the show Nebraska and Creighton put on in Omaha in September, with Nebraska winning in five sets. The largest crowd for a regular-season match in NCAA history — 14,022 — was there to see it.
The fourth set was great theater. Foecke would get a big kill, then Creighton’s Taryn Kloth would answer with her own big kill. After losing the first two sets, Nebraska won the fourth set to extend the match. Foecke had a career-high 25 kills, with 17 in the final three sets.
8. Another memory from the Creighton match, this one on leadership. Early in the match, Davis kept hitting into the block. It was a stressful time on the court for Nebraska. After a timeout, Foecke put her hand on Davis’ back and calmly spoke into her ear. Davis got better and had two big kills in the fifth set.
9. Last year, Annika Albrecht, who had achieved her three-year dream of being a starting outside hitter, was a popular Halloween costume. This year I saw there were some kids dressed as Stivrins. No surprise there, as she’s one of Nebraska’s most explosive and energetic players.
10. In a three-set victory against Northwestern, Stivrins was a perfect 10-for-10 on kills, getting a kill on each of her hitting attempts with no errors. She’s the first college player since 2016 to hit 1.000 (with at least 10 attacks), and just the third player at Nebraska to do so.
11. The recruiting tip on freshman Callie Schwarzenbach from Kearney, Missouri, came from a farmer’s daughter to a farmer, to another farmer, to that farmer’s daughter (coach Dani Busboom Kelly) to the head coach’s office. There’s a story that screams Nebraska volleyball.
12. As players at Nebraska, seniors Kenzie Maloney and Foecke have a record of 47-2 combined during the months of November and December. In some years, the first half of the Big Ten season was tougher than the second. But that record still shows a remarkable consistency, improvement during the season and ability to finish.
13. Recruiting rankings don’t win matches, but it’s still worth noting what you’re able to watch as fans at Nebraska, with a roster that includes five top-10 ranked recruits (Nicklin Hames, Sun, Foecke, Stivrins and Schwarzenbach).
14. A quick story about expectations. After finishing an interview with a player in the arena, I noticed they’d updated the banners for the national championship teams. I told her I liked the previous ones, which were white and more traditional, better. The player told me they should only have championship banners, and not ones for just getting to the Final Four. Whoa. The expectations for this program are very different from some of the programs at Nebraska.
15. I’ll miss writing “Foecke bomb” in my notes from the matches. She’s got all the shots, but none like the fastball. Foecke’s 3.72 kills per set is Nebraska’s best since 2013 (Kelsey Robinson, 4.45).
16. This team may have set a record for personalized cheers from the fans: “You got Foecked.” “You got Sun burn.” “Schwarzenblock.” “You got (Sami) Slaughtered.” And I’m probably forgetting more.
17. We had a little college volleyball drama in October when Minnesota wouldn’t agree to change the start time for a match against Nebraska so fans could watch both the Nebraska football and volleyball teams that day. When Terry Pettit helped choose Cook as his successor, he wanted a coach who would fight for the volleyball program. Pettit sure got that.
And now there is a chance Minnesota and Nebraska could play in the Elite Eight. The NCAA, and ESPN, would decide that start time.