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Volleyball: National Championship Set After Huskers Win a Thriller

OMG! OMG! OMG! We’re back in the National Title Game!!!!
Jon Johnston

Stanford vs. Nebraska. Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke will play in their third National Championship. Saturday night’s NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball National Championship match is set.

After the Stanford Cardinal swept the BYU Cougars in the first match, the Nebraska Cornhuskers took on familiar conference foe the Illinois Fighting Illini for the right to extend the season one more match. The Huskers won a heart-stopper 3-2 (22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11).

The first two points of the semifinal match went Nebraska’s way before the Illinois attack found the floor, but freshman outside hitter Capri Davis scored immediately again to give the serve back to the Huskers. A kill from sophomore outside Jazz Sweet made it 4-1 Huskers.

Illinois fought back to 4-3 Huskers, but couldn’t hold the serve longer than two, and a 3-1 run put the Huskers up 7-4 before freshman DS Megan Miller’s serve missed just long.

That missed serve was the start of a 3-0 Illini run that tied the score at seven before the Illinois attack missed wide.

The score stayed tight for quite awhile with Illinois managing to tie the score every time the Huskers opened a lead. Nebraska didn’t again establish an advantage of more than two until 14-11, but Illinois answered with a three-point run to again tie the score. The Nebraska block ended the run and the Huskers led 15-14 at the media timeout.

Illinois scored the first two after the media timeout to take their first lead of the set at 16-15. The Huskers tied the score on a well-placed tip by sophomore middle Lauren Stivrins. Two subsequent Illinois points gave the Illini an 18-16 lead and forced the first Husker timeout of the opening set.

Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke scored with a lightning bolt to the middle back to halt the Illinois run. The next rally was a marathon, but ultimately won by a missile off the right hand of sophomore outside Lexi Sun.

A kill from freshman setter Nicklin Hames pushed the Husker run to 3-0 and forced an Illinois timeout, their first of the set. Nebraska led 19-18.

Foecke aced the Illini out of the timeout to continue the Husker run. Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter ended the run, but the Huskers still held a 20-19 lead.

Illinois tied the score on the subsequent point, but Sun ensured they wouldn’t take the lead with her fifth kill of the night. The Huskers led 21-20.

Illinois scored the next two points to retake the lead and force the second Husker timeout of the set with the Illini up 22-21.

Sun’s next attack resulted in her first error of the night and gave Illinois a 23-21 lead. Another miss by Sun gave the Illini set point, 24-21.

The Huskers and Sun’s right hand weren’t done yet, though, as Lexi hit the ball sharp cross to close to 24-22. On the next point, the ball fell just outside Foecke’s reach, and the first set went to Illinois 25-22.

Illinois outhit Nebraska .269 to .255. The leading Husker attacker was Lexi Sun who had six kills on 14 swings to hit .286. Foecke had four kills on 16 swings to hit .188. The third leading Husker attacker was Hames with three kills.

The Illinois serve was deadly to start the second set. Two of Poulter’s first four serves were aces, and the Huskers looked lost on their way to an early timeout, trailing 4-0.

It didn’t get better after the timeout, as Illinois scored twice more, including another ace, to take a 6-0 lead and force another Husker timeout.

Finally, a Capri Davis ball found the floor on the Illinois side of the net to end the run. Although Illinois got the next point on a wide attack off the hand of freshman middle Callie Schwarzenbach, Nebraska began to find their footing. Though the score didn’t reflect it, the team made fewer unforced errors (like getting aced).

Illinois continued to outcompete the Huskers, however. Illinois led by as much as eight in the early part of the set at 12-4.

Nebraska started to show some life with sophomore DS Hayley Densberger serving, closing to withing four at 13-9 Illini, but that was short-lived as another run by the Illini put them back up 16-9.

Illinois again pushed the lead to eight at 18-10. A 2-0 Nebraska run led to the first Illinois timeout of the set with the score 18-12 Huskers.

Illinois halted the Husker run after the timeout to take a 19-12 lead, but Jazz Sweet answered for the Huskers, and then scored again to close the margin to 19-14 Illini.

Three in a row for Sweet pulled the Huskers to within four at 19-15, but a two-hit call on Foecke gave the serve back to Illinois.

The Huskers wouldn’t go away in the set, though. Sweet again came up big with a well-placed roll shot that had Illinois out of system and resulted in the attack sailing long, making the score 20-16 Illini. Nebraska didn’t score again, dropping the set 25-16.

Though Illinois hit a less-than-stellar .241 in the second set, Nebraska could only manage a .129, the result of a lot of bad passing and unforced errors. Foecke managed only three kills in the set, and Sun had only two.

Jazz Sweet was a bright spot for the Huskers. Even though she only had three kills, they came at a critical time that gave the Huskers life, and and even had a couple of balls that, though they didn’t find the floor, forced Illinois into plays that didn’t score, or ended with an errant ball.

The big story of the set for the Huskers was passing. The Huskers serve-receive really struggled to get the ball to freshman setter Nicklin Hames and consequently, she couldn’t put her hitters in a position to convert kills.

Nebraska’s first serve found the top of the net and resulted in an Illinois point, but a Sun-Schwarzenbach block, something that was completely absent in the second set, gave the ball back to the Huskers.

Again the Huskers missed the serve, but again the front row took care of it, with Foecke converting her next swing into a kill to tie the score at two.

The Huskers took a 3-2 lead on a kill out of the middle by Lauren Stivrins, but Illinois did a phenomenal job of covering two Husker blocks and then answered with one of their own on the next rally to tie the score again at three.

Nebraska took a two-point lead at 5-3 and then again at 6-4, but Illinois coach Chris Tamas challenged that call as the ball was called wide, but on replay the call was overturned. This made the score five-all.

A beautifully placed tip by Lauren Stivrins kept the Huskers on top of the set and a Foecke ace again gave the Huskers a two-point advantage.

The lead didn’t last for the Huskers though as Illinois tied the score again at eight, but the Huskers fended off the threat again, and took a 9-8 lead.

After Illinois answered to tie the score at nine, Sun served a four-point Husker run, including an ace, to push the Husker lead to 13-9 and force the first Illinois timeout of the set.

A tip over the Husker block stopped the Husker run, and a block on a Foecke swing pulled the Illini within two before their serve found the middle of the net and gave the ball back to the Huskers.

Illinois made it tight again, closing to within one at 14-13, but Jazz Sweet ended that run, and the Huskers put together a 4-0 run to push their lead to five at 18-13 and force the final Illinois timeout of the set.

A hard-fought point out of the timeout fell Illinois’ way, but the next point, also a marathon, ended with an exclamation point from Foecke’s right hand.

Nebraska opened the lead to 20-14 before again finding the middle of the net with their serve. An Illinois ace forced the first Nebraska timeout of the set holding a 20-16 lead.

The timeout was effective for the Huskers, as it took Illinois four hits to get the ball over the net on the next point, and the Huskers kept the advantage and earned the serve.

However, Nebraska struggled to put the Illini away and with the score 21-19, Coach John Cook used the second Husker timeout of the third set.

Nebraska again failed to convert twice more, and Illinois tied the score at 21. This time, however, the Huskers went back to Foecke and held on to the lead.

The Husker serve let them down again though, and Illinois tied the score at 22 on the error. The Illini took a 23-22 lead on a Husker attack error.

Callie Schwarzenbach and Mikaela Foecke earned the Huskers their first set point of the night, an opportunity the team didn’t squander. The Huskers took set three 25-23.

Foecke had eight kills in the third set, a set where the Huskers outhit the Illini .298 to .200.

Schwarzenbach started the scoring in the third set, pounding a slide in front of the Illinois defense to give the first point to the Huskers.

Two straight points gave the early 2-1 lead to the Illini, but Capri Davis answered for the Huskers to tie the score at two.

Illinois used an ace to open a two-point lead at 4-2, but then hit their serve long to end the early run.

Two Illinois attacks missing wide tied the score again at five in the set, and then Stivrins scored out of the slide to give the lead back to the Huskers at 6-5.

Nebraska used a 4-1 run after the tie score to take a 9-6 advantage, but Illinois answered with a 3-0 run to tie the score at nine.

Lexi Sun killed the next two balls to put the Huskers back out front 11-9, but two more Husker errors tied the score at 11.

Illinois retook the the lead at 12-11 on another Husker attack error, but Sun made good on her next chance, beautifully placing a ball just outside the reach of the Illinois defense to tied it at 12.

The Illini retook the lead, but the Huskers tied it again at 13. Nebraska retook the lead at 15-14 into the media timeout.

Illinois scored out of the timeout, but again missed their serve in the net, keeping the Huskers on top. Megan Miller followed up the Illinois miss with an ace and the Huskers again led by two. However, her next serve sailed long and the score was 17-16 Nebraska.

Illinois tied the score at 17 with a bic (quick attack out of the backrow), but tried it again on the next point and had it blocked by the Huskers.

The teams traded points briefly, with Illinois tying the score, and the Nebraska converting the next point to hold on to the slim lead. However, Lexi Sun emphatically found the deep corner to put the Huskers up 20-18 and force an Illinois timeout.

A tough, deep serve by Densberger forced the ball wide on the Illinois attack and pushed the lead to 21-18 Huskers. However, the Illini handled the next serve better, and closed to 21-19 on a setter attack.

The Illini scored the next point on the middle attack to close to within one at 21-20, but then served into the net to give the point to the Huskers.

Hames aced the Illini on the next point to push the Husker edge to three points at 23-20 and force the final Illinois timeout of the set.

A Jazz Sweet kill gave the Huskers their first set point, and Lexi Sun capitalized at the end of another long rally to give the set to the Huskers 25-20.

Lexi Sun had six kills in the fourth to lead the Huskers. No other Husker attacker had more than two.

Set one started with Illinois scoring first, but Nebraska outlasted the Illini on the next two points to take an early 2-1 lead.

The Illini answered, however, to tie the score at two, but their late serving woes continued, and the net serve gave the ball back to the Huskers.

That theme continued, as Illinois’ serves failed to clear the net at the Target Center. Illinois sided out to tie the score at two, three, and four, but missed the subsequent serve. When they tied the score at five, they made the serve, but Foecke converted her first kill since the third set.

Illinois retook the lead at 7-6 when their middle won a joust at the net with Hames, but a Stivrins kill tied the score again at seven.

Lexi Sun got the kill that gave the Huskers the 8-7 lead and force the change of sides.

Mikaela Foecke buried another backrow attack out of the timeout to push the Husker lead to two at 9-7, but Illinois tooled the top of the Husker block on the next point to close to within one again.

Lexi Sun used smarts and placement over power to put the Huskers up 10-8 with a tip between the Illinois blockers, but Illinois answered again to keep the score tight.

An ace serve by the Illini tied the score at 10 and resulted in Nebraska’s first timeout of the deciding set.

Capri Davis again came through for the Huskers, notching a kill on her second swing of the rally to put the Huskers back up by one.

Illinois tied the score up at 11, but Sweet scored the next point to keep the Huskers up. Foecke’s next swing was just wide and the score was again tied, this time at 11. However, Coach Cook challenged the call on the court, contending that the ball had been touched by the Illinois defense.

The challenge was confirmed, and the point went to the Huskers, making the score 13-11 Big Red.

Maloney aced the next serve and the Huskers had match point, up 14-11. Illinois then used their first timeout of the deciding set.

The Huskers finished the come-from-behind thriller 15-11.

You wouldn’t even have to see the scores to know this was a five-setter. The teams were in a dead heat in every statistical category. Nebraska had 68 kills and hit .251. Illinois had 59 kills and hit .237. Nebraska had 85 digs, Illinois 84. Nebraska missed 12 serves while scoring seven aces. Illinois had 10 errors and nine aces.

The only category that showed a HUGE disparity was blocks. Illinois had nine and a half while Nebraska had only four. However, as Coach Cook mentioned at the press conference, the Husker block slowed down the Illinois attack to make balls easier to defend, and turned back a lot of attacks, making the Illini reset and try to do it again.

Sun and Foecke each had 19 kills, but Foecke hit for a higher number, .300 to .196 for Sun. Sweet had nine kills and hit .350 and Stivrins hit .500 with eight kills and no errors.

Forcke and Sun also led the Huskers with two aces apiece. Hames, Miller, and Maloney added one each.

Five Huskers had double-digit digs, not a surprise when the team has 85. Maloney led the way with 20 while both Hames and Miller had 19.

So what does Saturday night look like? Well, If Nebraska’s going to win another National Championship, they’re going to have to play better volleyball. While that seems obvious, the specifics are a little fuzzier.

Nebraska has to get middles and Jazz Sweet more involved earlier. In the final three sets, more balls were set to hitters not named Sun and Foecke, both of whom had 50+ swings on the night.

For that to happen, though, the passing needs to be better. In sets 3, 4, and 5 on Thursday, the team put Hames in a position that she could not only set good balls, but set all the hitters to keep the Illinois defense on its toes. If the passing’s not there, that doesn’t happen.

All three players during the press conference mentioned the need to play “Nebraska Volleyball.” Sun said that after the first two sets, she “leaned on” the captains to help guide the team, she also mentioned how she’s looked up to Mikaela and Kenzie over the course of the season and how reliable are.

When asked about setter Nicklin Hames’ performance tonight, Coach Cook mentioned that she very much looked like a freshman early, but matured and played much smarter volleyball as the night went on.

If Nebraska plays “Nebraska Volleyball,” something more akin to the last three sets, but the final two in particular, it’s easy to pick them to win it all. If they don’t, then it’s hard to say.

During the presser,

Nebraska in four. Back-to-back Natty Champs.