The Nebraska volleyball program already had the country’s biggest fan base, more than a few national titles and was making its third straight Final Four appearance this week. Now, after beating the second-seeded Florida Gators in the national title match on Saturday, the fifth-seeded Huskers (32-4) have a new accomplishment.
For the first time in program history, Nebraska won a second national title in a three-year span. This one came in four sets — 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16.
The Gators had not reached the national championship match since 2003, the last time they made the Final Four, and instead of earning their program’s first national title, they became an unfortunate piece of trivia.
Florida (30-2) beat Nebraska in five sets in both schools’ second matches of the regular season, and the last time Nebraska faced an opponent in the NCAA tournament that it lost to in the regular season was in 2015. The Huskers beat Texas to win the national title that year. Now the Gators are in the same club as the Longhorns.
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When Florida beat the Huskers earlier this season, Nebraska was still figuring itself out, beginning a year that even players thought might have qualified as a rebuilding season.
The Huskers also didn’t have senior setter Kelly Hunter for that match. On Saturday, Hunter had 37 assists.
“Kelly just has a gift of how to run a team,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “I don’t know how to coach it. It’s what the great ones have.”
Cook said he made a list a few years ago, after the Huskers had joined the Big Ten and would have to beat traditional power Penn State to win their conference. The list was more than 30 items long, but it boiled down to something simple: Playing strong defense.
“Defense is a mind-set,” Cook said. “In any sport, it’s a mind-set. These guys have a really strong mind-set.”
Nebraska had 65 digs on Saturday. The Huskers held the Gators to hitting .141.
This match, filled with rallies, required patience and spread-out offense — and for a bit, the offense was missing.
Florida’s first three points came on Nebraska errors. Almost every point required a long rally, and both teams struggled to hit well. The Huskers hit .081 in the first set. The Gators hit .025.
Thanks in part to two kills by Mikaela Foecke, the Huskers scored seven straight points in the first set to take a 18-15 lead. Two straight Florida errors gave Nebraska set point, and another Foecke kill sealed the first set for the Huskers.
As Foecke helped the Huskers offense improve, the Gators’ struggles became even less sustainable. Nebraska hit .417 in the second set.
“Twenty kills?” Hunter said of Foecke’s final stat line. “Oh my gosh. I didn’t even realize it was that many.”
Foecke’s swings helped the announced NCAA-record crowd of 18,516, most of them in Husker red, reach some of its loudest moments on Saturday.
The Nebraska fans seemed to help psych the Gators out a bit in the fourth set. Six service or attack errors by Florida helped establish a commanding 9-1 lead for the Huskers, and they never let Florida get back in the match after that.
During a press conference Friday, Florida coach Mary Wise said getting to this point in the season requires breaks — proper matchups, good health and a bit of luck.
The luck was on Nebraska’s side in this match. The Huskers’ libero, Kenzie Maloney, recorded a kill when she dug a hard spike. A point later, she had a service ace to put Nebraska up 17-10, and her teammates began a celebratory dance.
Soon after, once Foecke recorded the final kill, they piled onto one another near center court. Foecke and Hunter shared most outstanding player honors for helping win Cook’s fourth title and Nebraska’s fifth overall.
“Winning a national championship, I thought, would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Foecke said.
Not for these Huskers.