LINCOLN — By nearly everyone’s admission, one of the biggest aspects Nebraska was lacking during an October that saw NU drop five matches against top-10 opponents was poise in closely contested sets.
During that time, Husker coach John Cook likened resilience to a muscle. His team needed to train it, develop it, and finally, flex it. In a locker room speech following Nebraska’s Sweet 16 win over Kentucky, Cook choked up while praising his team for finding its mettle in the match’s tough moments.
“It’s so much fun to see you guys be resilient,” Cook said. “The wheels were coming off, but our big resilient muscle just went, like, boom.”
The “boom,” he punctuated with a clenched, pumping fist. The Huskers will enter the final four the only team not to drop a set in the postseason, but Nebraska had to fight plenty in Minneapolis last weekend to keep that record unblemished. Three of the six sets NU won were decided by two or three points, including rallying from down 18-11 in Game 3 to finish off a sweep of Kentucky.
The next day, NU captured the first two sets by narrow margins against Oregon, which had shocked No. 2 seed Minnesota on Friday afternoon. With Game 1 tied 20-20, Oregon handed Nebraska the opener by committing three straight unforced hitting errors, sending shots long, wide and into the net.
The Huskers grabbed the next set with kills from Mikaela Foecke and Lauren Stivrins after the teams were tied 23-23.
It was a sharp contrast to Nebraska’s late-set struggles in October, never more evident than in a loss to the Huskers’ final four opponent, Illinois, on Oct. 27. The Fighting Illini captured the last two sets of a 3-1 win by two and three points respectively. In both, the Huskers had their chances to grab the win, only to be hamstrung by breakdowns and miscues.
Foecke and Lexi Sun each hit long to erase a pair of set points NU held in Game 3, and the Illini took a 27-25 win thanks to another NU mistake, a net violation called on Jazz Sweet.
Three straight Husker errors would end the match in Game 4. With the set tied 23-23, Nicklin Hames served into the net, and Illinois clinched the win by blocking Sun and Sweet on the next two rallies.
Nebraska hit a season-low .099 in the loss and matched its season high with 30 hitting errors. It capped a five-match stretch in October where NU lost seven of nine sets decided by three points or fewer.
“Honestly, I think we’ve been playing timid,” Foecke said after that October loss. “I think we have that mindset in the back of our minds, even if it’s not up there, that we don’t want to make mistakes. No one wants to let the team down, but I think we’ve got to get rid of that and play fearless and know that if you do mess up, well, you’ve got the next point.”
That short memory, what Nebraska refers to as its “point-by-point mentality,” has been a defining characteristic of Husker teams in Foecke’s first three years, but it had taken time to develop on this year’s club, which features seven newcomers, including four who start.
Stivrins pointed to another series against Oregon that shows the attitude may finally have taken root. Sun, who had 10 hitting errors in the October loss to Illinois, mistimed her swing at an Oregon overpass and deposited the ball into the net. But on the next rally, she blocked Willow Johnson, the Ducks’ 6-foot-3 opposite hitter.
“Having such a young team and so many new players, it can be hard to establish a culture,” Foecke said after the Oregon match. “We’ve worked really hard together to get the culture that we want.
“Just seeing that, seeing everyone play so hard for each other tonight, was really rewarding.”
Familiar faces in final four
Both of Thursday’s national semifinals will be rematches from earlier this season with BYU playing Stanford at 6 p.m., followed by the third meeting of the year between Nebraska and Illinois.
The Huskers are used to seeing familiar faces in the final four. In each of the past three seasons, Nebraska has faced an opponent in the final four that it saw earlier in the year.
Last season, both of NU’s final four matches were rematches. The Huskers’ five-set win over Penn State in the national semifinals was their second victory against the Nittany Lions of the season. In the national final, Nebraska avenged an early-season loss to Florida to claim the school’s fifth NCAA title.
In 2015, Nebraska beat Texas to win the national championship after losing to Texas early in the year. The roles were reversed the following season with the Longhorns sweeping the Huskers in the 2016 national semifinals in Columbus, Ohio, to avenge a sweep by NU in nonconference play.
Thursday will be the eighth meeting between Nebraska and Illinois over the last four seasons, with the Huskers taking six in a row before the Illini’s October win in Lincoln.
Two of the main contenders for national player of the year will face off when No. 4 BYU (31-1) and No. 1 Stanford (32-1) meet in Thursday’s first national semifinal when BYU senior outside hitter Roni Jones-Perrtey goes up against the defending national player of the year, Stanford junior opposite Kathryn Plummer.
Jones-Perry continued her dominant season with 25 kills in the Cougars’ 3-0 win over Texas in the regional final. On the year, she’s averaging 4.88 kills per set and hitting .343.
Perhaps most impressive is that Jones-Perry has continued to produce despite being the focal point of opposing defenses after BYU lost its other start outside hitter, McKenna Miller, to an injury last month. Jones-Perry has taken 600 more swings than any other Cougar currently in the lineup.
Plummer, a 6-foot-6 junior, put away 23 kills on .383 hitting in Stanford’s regional final win over Penn State on Saturday for her ninth 20-kill performance of the season. She’s averaging 4.76 kills per set on the year.
The two players had a memorable duel in BYU’s five-set win on Aug. 31 in Provo, Utah. Plummer had 21 kills, but it wasn’t enough to best Jones-Perry (20 kills) and the Cougars, who handed Stanford its lone loss of the season.
The Cardinal hasn’t lost since, coming to Minneapolis with a 30-match winning streak.
A tangled coaching web
Husker fans are aware of the connection between Illinois coach Chris Tamas and Nebraska. Tamas spent two seasons as an assistant under Cook, helping NU reach final fours in 2015 and 2016 before taking over the Fighting Illini.
But no one at the final four may have more ties to his opponents than Stanford coach Kevin Hambly. Hambly spent eight years as coach at Illinois, and it was his decision to take over the Stanford program from the retiring John Dunning that opened the door for Tamas to go to Champaign. Hambly recruited most of Illinois’ roster including its core of setter Jordyn Poulter, outside hitter Jacqueline Quade and middle blocker Ali Bastianelli.
In Thursday’s first national semifinal, Hambly will be across the net from his alma mater, BYU, where he earned All-America honors playing for longtime Cougars men’s coach Carl McGown from 1992-95.
BYU is also the alma mater of Nebraska assistant coach Jaylen Reyes. Reyes began coaching at BYU right after the end of his playing career, serving as an assistant for three years under current Cougars men’s coach Shawn Olmstead. Olmstead’s sister Heather is the coach of the BYU women’s team.