Nebraska captures fourth national title in front of record crowd in Omaha
OMAHA, NE—It wasn’t the best match Kelsey Fien has played, but she’ll be talking about it the rest of her life.
The Nebraska senior’s final swing – one that trickled down the arms of two Texas blockers and onto the floor – “Couldn’t have been more perfect,” Fien said.
Fien’s kill was the last point in Nebraska’s 25-23, 25-23, and 25-21 sweep of the Longhorns in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship in front of a record 17,561 fans at the Century Link Center. Nebraska (32-4) ends the season with a 16-match winning streak and its fourth national championship.
Fien intended to send the ball off the top of the block but even though the shot didn’t quite follow the flight plan it was still “the greatest point ever.”
“I watched the ball pinball between them and land on the floor,” Fien said. “Heck, yeah.”
Seconds later, silver and gold streamers snaked from the ceiling, landing atop a pile of screaming Cornhuskers and amid a circle of silent Longhorns.
The record crowd was so loud that on match point, Texas’ Amy Neal served before the lead official had given her the go-ahead. “I couldn’t hear,” Neal said to her bench.
“I thought my eardrums were going to pop,” said Nebraska’s Mikaela Foecke, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Foecke, a freshman from West Point, La., was remarkably consistent this season, posting 10 or more kills in 21 matches. Her kill totals in the postseason: 12, 12, 8, 11, 12, and 19.
“She was on fire tonight,” Cornhuskers coach John Cook said. “She’s a powerful hitter and she uses the whole court.”
Foecke had kills on Nebraska’s 21st, 22nd, and 24th points in the second set, helping Nebraska overcome a 22-21 deficit.
“Foecke was on fire,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “She was hitting .562 [after two sets] and we had to slow her down.”
Elliott put his own freshman, Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, on Foecke in the third set in which Foecke had three kills and three errors.
“It worked,” Cook said.
Bedart-Ghani had her best matches in the final four; 15 kills and a .583 hitting parentage against Minnesota on Thursday and 11 kills and a .500 percentage against Nebraska.
But that freed up middle blocker Amber Rolfzen, who had four of her 10 kills in the third set. Rolfzen missed a regular season loss against Texas with an injury, but came through with a .625 hitting percentage Saturday.
“I know that rivalry was there, but never being in the Big 12, I never knew what it was like, but we always know that there’s those teams that the crowd’s going to get really riled up for and this is one of them,” Rolfzen said.
Nebraska hit .311 with just 12 errors in what Cook said was his team’s best performance of the season.
“They were just in system constantly,” Texas middle blocker Molly McCage said. “I felt like last time we played them we were able to sneak in and get them in long runs.”
Texas (30-3) overcame much this season. Ebony Nwanebu, the national Freshman of the Year before transferring from Southern California, was expected to replace the firepower of National Player of the Year Haley Eckerman. But Nwanebu played one match all season (ironically, in the win against Nebraska) because of various injuries. Injuries also hijacked the season of Micaya White, the Big 12 preseason Freshman of the Year.
The normally imposing Longhorns were less so, with Neal, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter, and 5-7 setter Chloe Collins trying to block much taller hitters. Elliott called the Longhorns “the little team that could” after Thursday’s win against Minnesota, after spending years as “the gigantic team that couldn’t lose.”
But it couldn’t overcome a roaring crowd, a front line that didn’t seem to miss, and lastly, a 4-0 run in the third set that put Nebraska ahead, 21-16.
“They never cracked,” Elliott said of Nebraska.
Neal, the Big 12 Player of the Year, finished with 10 kills, and through the tournament took 33 percent of Texas’ swings. Afterward, she spoke not of stats but relationships.
“I wish I was not a senior. The amount I’m going to miss them is insane,” Neal said.
Inside the post-match pile, Fien looked into the crowd and made eye contact with her club coach, Judy Rexroth, who flew in from Bakersfield, Ca. – Fien’s hometown – for the match.
“She started me,” Fien said. “She taught me everything. She got me recruited to Nebraska; literally my second volleyball family. It’s funny, but when I saw her that’s the first time I knew the national championship was real.”