MINNEAPOLIS — The final four brings with it a lot of ancillary noise, even for a team that has the fan and media following of Nebraska.
It’s why Kenzie Maloney, after imploring her teammates in their locker room to tune out the distractions and focus on volleyball, couldn’t hide her impatience as she was shepherded through a hallway on the Target Center’s ground floor, being pulled from one interview to another.
“I hate this day,” the senior libero groused to no one in particular.
Maloney and Mikaela Foecke are familiar with all of it. The drudge of the media day and the exhilaration that awaits on the other side. The seniors have made it to this day all four years of their careers, the first in program history to end each season on college volleyball’s final weekend.
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To get to the Target Center, where sixth-ranked Nebraska (28-6) will face No. 3 Illinois (32-3) in Thursday’s 8 p.m. national semifinal, NU’s senior captains had to keep the faith that buried in Nebraska’s roster and obscured by five October losses was a team that had the pieces for one last national championship run.
“Some people didn’t see us here right now, but we’ve done it, we made it,” Foecke said. “I think at the beginning of the season to where we are now is leaps and bounds. We had so many young players, players that didn’t know Nebraska volleyball, our system, our culture.
“We just really tried to instill that in them. It’s been a work in progress, but I think we’re still headed up and in the right direction.”
John Cook saw that promise sooner than most, and tried to show his team. The coach rolled out statistics showing the improvement in serving during the year.
The Huskers also matured into a solid passing team, and made Cook eat his words about their defensive deficiencies by leading the Big Ten in blocking and the country in opponent hitting percentage. In his 19 seasons at Nebraska, Cook doesn’t think any team has improved more during the season than this one.
Still, it was Nebraska’s senior captains who led the team through the daily grind in workouts, sanding NU’s rough edges and igniting belief that despite four new starters, the Huskers could still find a top gear.
“These two, when you’re around them, they bring a mindset and attitude of confidence and work ethic that inspires their teammates,” Cook said. “So we get a lot done in practice. They work very hard in practice. They’re committed to the process of getting better every day.”
Thursday’s semifinal — after No. 4 BYU and No. 1 Stanford face off — will be the third meeting of the year between the Huskers and Illini. While Nebraska won the first meeting in Champaign, the most recent match, a four-set Illinois win in Lincoln on Oct. 27, was the nadir of NU’s season. Nebraska’s 30 hitting errors tied a season high and gave way to a season-low .099 hitting percentage.
Cook saw tentative swings, which let Illinois dig 104 balls and put up 12 blocks. Serves fell between Huskers who weren’t communicating and setter Nicklin Hames was in her own head, seeking perfection as the first true freshman to have the sole responsibility to run Nebraska’s offense.
Not long after, Hames had a talk with the team’s sports psychologist, who urged her not to worry about making the perfect set. Just be herself and “play free.”
“It means don’t worry about setting perfectly,” Hames said. “Just go out and do what you do. I’m at my best when I’m throwing balls around.”
The next match, Nebraska rebounded with a five-set win over No. 7 Penn State.
A fire was lit. The Huskers haven’t lost since, bringing a 12-match winning streak to the final four in which they have hit better than .300 eight times while holding opponents to .137 attacking.
NU’s recent run solidified All-America honors for three players Wednesday. Foecke and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins made first team while Maloney earned third-team honors.
“When we step on the court,” Maloney said, “it’s more a mindset of confidence that we were kind of lacking towards the beginning of the season.”
Illinois brings its own All-Americans to Thursday night’s rubber match in setter Jordyn Poulter, a first-team pick, and middle blocker Ali Bastianelli, a third-teamer. In the Illini’s win in Lincoln, Poulter lived up to her reputation as one of the country’s best distributors. She had 18 digs and sent the ball 82 times to outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, who deposited 23 kills.
Poulter and Bastianelli will face Nebraska for the eighth time in their careers. And with Illinois coached by former Husker assistant Chris Tamas, the teams shouldn’t need much time to get reacquainted.
And as Illinois players filtered past Nebraska’s hallway interviews Wednesday, NU players were eager to prove the resemblance to the group the Illini beat in October is only skin deep.
The Huskers are much happier now with the team they see in the mirror.
“If we come together and we play like the team we have been for the past few matches,” Maloney said, “then I don’t think anyone could beat us.”