MINNEAPOLIS — Husker opponents know NU is going to run its attack through outside hitters Mikaela Foecke and Lexi Sun, who each had 19 kills in Thursday’s win over Illinois. But the Huskers couldn’t have pulled off the comeback without contributions from their supporting cast, coach John Cook said Saturday.
“If you look at total points, it was a two-point difference,” Cook said. “That’s the way it is this time of year. Every point really matters. You got to fight for every point. Any time those guys can make a contribution or find a way to get us a point, it’s a huge deal.”
Freshman Capri Davis, who comes in for one rotation as opposite hitter, had four kills, including a shot tucked just inside the sideline to give the Huskers an 11-10 lead in Game 5.
“My teammates give me confidence to just go up and swing big every time because they’ll be (covering) underneath me,” Davis said. “I saw it open and thought let’s just swing high and let’s get it in the court and see what we can keep playing with.”
Davis’ platoon mate, Jazz Sweet, had a pair of clutch kills in the fifth set, as well. The sophomore from Tecumseh, Kansas, buried a shot to put NU up 12-11, starting the Huskers’ match-ending 4-0 run.
Sweet struggled during the Huskers’ October swoon, hitting below .160 in each of NU’s losses during the month. But steady work in practice paid off, she said. NU coaches adjusted her footwork to help her get to the ball faster on sets that might be outside her desired hitting window. The change helps her avoid reaching for balls and committing attack errors.
It came together against Illinois when Sweet had nine kills, her highest total in her last 14 matches.
“I think it was definitely just a validation of what we’ve been working on,” Sweet said. “Not just me, but me and Nicklin together. The passing and everything was really just clicking. There’s no better time than right now in the postseason for things to start going great.”
Alade leads block party
Stanford coach Kevin Hambly is used to seeing his physical blockers shut down opposing hitters, but the Cardinal’s 17 blocks in Thursday’s win over BYU in the national semifinals was a number at which even he had to look twice. Stanford’s stuffs pulled the Cougars’ hitting percentage to a season-low negative-.026.
“What we did defensively against them (Thursday), we didn’t expect that,” Hambly said. “We thought we could play some pretty good defense, but didn’t expect to hold them to negative.”
Tami Alade’s 14 blocks against BYU were one shy of her career high and gave the senior from Canada a star turn on the final weekend of her career. Hambly said he nearly switched Alade to outside hitter last year, but kept her in the middle because of a shortage at the position.
Last year, Alade would almost be surprised when she blocked a shot, Hambly said. “But her dynamic leaping ability combined with diligent work on improving her technique has pushed Alade to become the nation’s leading blocker.
“People don’t get to see how hard she works every single day in practice,” Stanford setter Jenna Gray said. “She is so hard on herself. She is always trying to close a block and get better. I am so proud of how she played (Thursday), and she absolutely deserves every single one of those blocks that she got.”
Freshmen shake off jitters
It wasn’t just Nebraska’s freshmen who started slowly against Illinois, Foecke said. Each Husker showed some nerves as NU dropped the first two sets.
But having four freshmen who receive regular playing time means the rookies had to shake off their early jitters in order for Nebraska to come back.
That included freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller, whom Illinois targeted with its serving with some success in the first two sets. Miller, who also committed four service errors, began to steady her passing as the match went on as NU outhit Illinois in each of the final three sets. Miller added 19 digs against the Illini.
“I think just throughout we got more relaxed and went back to more of our training and what we knew how to do,” Miller said. “That was really helpful. Then, we obviously started sticking balls towards the end.”
Davis and freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach each added four kills, and freshman setter Hames came up with her 24th double-double of the year with 46 assists and 19 digs.
Two years ago, the core of Stanford’s current team helped the Cardinal win the 2016 NCAA title as freshmen. Hames said the Huskers’ newcomers take pride in trying to duplicate that feat on Saturday.
“(Nebraska is) not an easy program to come into because of the championship behavior they have and the expectations to make it to the final four and make it to the national championship,” Hames said. “I think we’ve really helped this team get this far, and I’m just super proud of them.”
Stanford and Nebraska are the top two teams in all-time final four appearances, with Stanford leading the way with 22. Nebraska is at 15.
Saturday will mark Stanford’s 16th appearance in the NCAA championship match. The Cardinal are 7-8 all time in the national final, matching Penn State for the most titles by any program.
This will be the fifth time the Huskers and Cardinal have played in the final four and the second time they’ve met for the championship. In 2006, Nebraska knocked off Stanford in four sets in Omaha behind 22 kills from Sarah Pavan and 19 from Jordan Larson.
In 2001, Stanford, led by Olympian Logan Tom, swept the defending national champion Huskers in the national semifinals in San Diego in John Cook’s second season in Lincoln.
Stanford handed NU a four-set defeat in the 1996 national semifinals in Cleveland en route to a national championship win over Hawaii two nights later.
And in Nebraska’s first final four appearance in 1986, the Huskers beat Stanford in four sets in Stockton, California, before losing to host Pacific in the title match.