MINNEAPOLIS — John Cook says that Nebraska was the most improved college volleyball team in the country this season from start to finish, and the team making it all the way to the national championship match probably shows he’s right.
For sure, the Nebraska coach knows this is the most improved team he’s ever coached. From losing five of seven matches in October, to playing in the final match played during the 2018 season.
But that wasn’t quite enough, with top-ranked Stanford beating No. 6 Nebraska in five sets on Saturday in the national championship match 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12.
Nebraska’s season ends with a 29-7 record, and its bid for the program’s first back-to-back titles, and three in four years, coming up just short.
Stanford now has a record-breaking eighth national championship in volleyball, snapping a tie with Penn State. Stanford is the first No. 1 seed to win since Penn State did so in 2009.
The Cardinal ended the season on a 32-match winning streak. Stanford’s junior class also won the title as freshmen in 2016.
Nebraska went up against and nearly beat a Stanford team with five All-Americans, including first-teamers at the all-important positions of setter (Jenna Gray), outside hitter (Kathryn Plummer) and libero (Morgan Hentz). Plummer, the two-time national player of the year, had a slow start, but finished with 19 kills. Hentz was brilliant with 32 digs. Gray and Plummer helped bail Stanford out of a lot of tough spots with kills.
In the final match of her brilliant career, Mikaela Foecke led the Huskers with a career-high 27 kills on .296 hitting. Lauren Stivrins also had a career high in kills with 19 on a .615 hitting percentage. Jazz Sweet added 10 kills.
In a match where each team had points of both remarkable domination and despair, Stanford was three points better at the finish.
“You know, if you look at the stats here, they had one more sideout than we did,” Cook said. “That’s how close it was. Congratulations to Stanford. They played really well in that fifth game. They just seemed like they served really tough. Once they got out to a little lead, they made a nice comeback. I'm very proud of our team, how hard they fought. We did some really good things tonight, competed really well. Not many people gave us a chance. Get to the fifth game, anything can happen.”
Nebraska actually had the better hitting percentage, .271 to .250. Stanford had 11 blocks, after having 17 in three-sets in the semifinals. Nebraska had nine blocks.
With Stanford leading the match 2-1, Nebraska rallied in a big way to start the fourth set, charging out to a 4-0 lead, with kills on each point from three different players. The lead soon reached 10-1. Stanford called a timeout. Chants of “Go Big Red” echoed through the arena for most of the break. Fans yelled down to the Stanford bench, “Huskers in five (sets).”
Stanford cut into the lead a bit, but Nebraska won 25-15 and charged into the winner-take-all fifth set with a load of momentum.
In the fifth set, Nebraska led 3-1, but then Stanford went on a 4-0 run for a 5-3 lead. Foecke stopped the run with a kill.
Later, two kills from Lexi Sun tied the match at nine. But Stanford got two kills from Holly Campbell and one from Plummer for a 13-10 lead. Then Stanford got an ace serve from Sidney Wilson. It was at first ruled out, but the call was reversed by video review. So Stanford led 14-10.
Foecke got a kill to cut the deficit to 14-11, and a net error made it 14-12. Middle blocker Meghan McClure had the match-winning kill with a shot through the Husker block.
Nebraska had two serving errors in the fifth set.
“I think that Stanford made a few great plays,” said Foecke of the fifth set. “We had a few errors. Ended up obviously costing us a few extra points that won them the match.”
Nebraska had about as good a start to the match as it could hope for. Nebraska used a 4-0 run for a 4-2 lead in the first set, and then a 3-0 run for a 9-4 lead. Nebraska hit .556 to that point, and held Stanford to .000.
Then Nebraska wasn’t as aggressive with its attacks, coming at the same time Stanford was heating up. Nebraska’s lead reached 17-13. Stanford rallied and took a 24-21 lead, but Nebraska had another fight in them, scoring three straight points, including a block and Stivrins drilling back an overpass.
But Stanford won the final two points when Sun hit out and was blocked. Serving was a big difference in the set. Stanford had five aces, and Nebraska just one.
In the second set, Nebraska led most of the way, but faced trouble again when Stanford got a four-point deficit down to two, 21-19. Foecke put an end to a comeback with a back-row kill, and then one at the net for a 23-19 lead. Again, Stanford reeled off two points, and then Foecke got another kill. Nebraska won the set 25-22 on a Stanford net violation.
Foecke had eight kills in the set. Sun, after a bad start to the match hitting, had three kills in the set, and Nebraska steadied itself in the serve and pass game.
The championship loss will end one of the greatest eras in program history. In the past four years, with Foecke and Kenzie Maloney on the team and playing a lot, Nebraska played in the national championship match three times, winning twice. They played on teams that went 21-2 in the NCAA Tournament.
Maloney wanted to win a national championship so the eight new players on the team this year would know that feeling and be able to pass that on to teams for many years. That didn’t happen, but what they did pass on is that it doesn’t matter if the season doesn’t start great, because with hard work and determination, it can end that way.
They’ll leave behind a determined team that wasn’t pleased to finish second.
“I think both teams, like, gave it all they got tonight,” Stivrins said. “Sucks to come up short. I don't know. We'll figure it out for next year, I guess.”
by Brent Wagner