KANSAS CITY, Mo. — So many times in sports a team comes up short.

This team, this year, did not.

Five months ago when the season began, coach John Cook laid out a plan for the Nebraska volleyball team. We want to be good early in the season, great once the conference season begins, and unstoppable in the NCAA Tournament, Cook said. And he really believed they could do so, even when others did not.

He was right. Over the past eight weeks, and 19 matches, no team could stop Nebraska. They were unstoppable, and are now national champions again.

Fifth-ranked Nebraska turned in one more masterpiece in a season full of them, defeating No. 3 Florida 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16 on Saturday in front of a record crowd of 18,516 at the Sprint Center, most of them fans of these Huskers.

This is the program’s fifth national championship, but never have they come this close together. That’s two NCAA titles in three years. Remarkable.

In the NCAA Tournament, Nebraska won 18 sets and lost just four.

Nebraska won Saturday by getting a dominating performance from junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, who just keeps delivering monster matches in the tournament. She had a match-high 20 kills, including the final kill of all three sets the Huskers won.

So, what it’s like when you actually achieve unstoppable?

“It’s an unbelivable feeling,” said Cook as the players cut down the net. “It’s a feeling every team in sports is chasing is to be No. 1 and win a national championship.”

“It’s insane,” junior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “You talk about it for so long, and when it all adds up and you actually accomplished what you wanted, and your goals, it’s an unreal feeling.”

“We’re the only team that got to end the season like this,” said senior setter Kelly Hunter. “We’re so lucky but we’ve worked for this, so it’s a little more than luck. I just love this team. I’ve said it a million times. We have so much love for each other, and I don’t want to leave this team.”

Most coaches would love to rank their national championships. Cook can.

“We’ve done this a couple of times, but this one is the most amazing, unbelivable for me because of all we had to overcome with what we graduated, and a new staff and all of that,” said Cook, the four-time national champion coach whose plan was to coach high school football in California. “It’s been the best ride.”

Lauren Stivrins added nine kills for the Huskers. Briana Holman had seven kills and six blocks. Annika Albrecht had seven kills and 11 digs. Hunter had six kills, 37 assists, two ace serves and eight digs.

Nebraska dominated for stretches of the match. Those included a 7-0 run in the first set, and a 4-0 run to start the fourth set, a quick blow to a Florida team that had some life.

Foecke’s 20 kills came on .250 hitting, including four in the deciding fourth set.

“She willed us in game four,” Cook said. “She got some huge kills. She was struggling a little in this match, for her. And she just turns it on when we need it.”

Foecke and Hunter are the co-MVP of the Final Four.

In the fourth set Nebraska got out to a 4-0 lead. Then Hunter was brilliant again, serving a 4-0 run that was part of a 5-0 run that put the Huskers up 9-1. Florida got its deficit to 14-10, but Foecke had another kill, and then Albrecht one on a back-row attack for an 18-11 lead.

Jazz Sweet didn’t have a great match, but she had a great kill for a 20-13 lead that got a fist pump from Cook on the bench. Florida called a timeout, and the Husker fans stood and cheered for most of it. A championship was five points away.

Stivrins got two of them on back-to-back rallies for a 23-15 lead. Hunter scored on a tip to the back corner to make it 24-15. Florida got one more point. But on national championship point, Foecke got one final kill, hitting a ball off the blocker’s hands that sailed off the edge of the court.

Just one final kill in a match full of them.

“This is two times she’s been MVP of the Final Four, so what does that say?” Cook said. “She’s an unbelievable competitor.”

Nebraska lost its first two matches of the season, albeit with an asterisk. Hunter did not play in those matches due to injury. The Huskers won 32 of 34 matches with her back confidently setting each of the Huskers’ hitters, serving tough and putting down game-winning kills, as she did against Penn State in the national semifinals.

Few, if any, athlete in a women’s sport at Nebraska can match the accomplishments of Hunter. As a starter, she led the Huskers to two national championships and is a first-team All-American. She went 16-1 in the NCAA Tournament as the starter.

“It’s been a really special couple of years,” Hunter said. “We got to reinvent the culture of Nebraska volleyball. It’s just been so great to see how I’ve developed and the players around me have developed and how Coach Cook has developed and it’s been a really fun five years I’ve had at Nebraska."

Nebraska was never ranked better than fourth this season. One month into the season, after a Saturday afternoon loss against Northern Iowa, the Huskers dropped to No. 14.

Now they’re national champions.

“We had our ups and downs, but it didn’t matter, because we stayed together as a group and we knew that we could do this,” Maloney said.

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


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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