It's become a familiar feature of late autumn, as sure to arrive in Nebraska as the cold wind across the prairie. When the calendar turns to November, signaling the stretch drive of the Big Ten volleyball season and the rush toward the NCAA tournament, Mikaela Foecke shifts into big-game mode.
The Nebraska outside hitter never fails to rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest. Foecke has twice been named most outstanding player at the NCAA Final Four, in the Cornhuskers' championship seasons of 2015 and 2017. She is 21-1 in NCAA tournament matches. With fellow senior co-captain Kenzie Maloney, Foecke has led the Huskers to four consecutive Final Fours -- a program record -- and a remarkable 52-2 record in November and December over the past four seasons.
"Mikaela just has confidence," Maloney said. "I think the bigger the stage for her, the more confidence she has. She just runs with it."
Senior captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney have a bond that goes beyond the court.— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) December 15, 2018
Tomorrow they hope to lead @Huskervball to a third national championship in four years.#NCAAVB pic.twitter.com/lKwgMFXtnU
Foecke will take her final bow Saturday on the biggest stage of all, when Nebraska faces Stanford for the NCAA championship at Target Center. The seventh-seeded Cornhuskers will try to win their first back-to-back titles, while top seed Stanford is pursuing its eighth championship, which would break a tie with Penn State for the most in NCAA history.
Nebraska coach John Cook gives Foecke and Maloney the credit for getting a young Huskers team this far. Their leadership helped integrate eight new players, the largest incoming group in program history. Though few expected the team to reach the Final Four -- particularly after it lost five of seven matches in October -- the strong-willed seniors have spearheaded a 13-match win streak, including Thursday's rally from an 0-2 deficit in the semifinals against Illinois.
Foecke had 19 kills and 11 digs in the semifinals, with two kills ensuring victory in the pivotal third set and two others sealing the win in the fifth set. She will be in her element again Saturday, as Nebraska seeks its sixth NCAA title.
"The Final Four is always super fun," Foecke said. "There's so much hype. As a team, we really embrace that. That's where we play some of our best volleyball.
"Some people didn't see us here right now. But we've done it. We made it. From the beginning of the season to where we are now is leaps and bounds."
That is due largely to Foecke, a native of tiny West Point, Iowa. Earlier this week, she was named a first-team All-America and winner of the Senior CLASS Award, a national honor given for excellence in academics, community service, character and competition.
Though Cook joked about her postseason prowess -- "Sometimes, I think, 'Why doesn't she play like that all year?" he said with a laugh -- Foecke has been a four-year cornerstone for the Huskers. She is third on the program's career kills list (1,657) and tied for seventh in career aces (134). One of only four women to be named the most outstanding player at two Final Fours, her 282 kills in NCAA tournament play are the second-most in Huskers history.
Maloney said Foecke "trusts her training" in big matches, and her unflappability keeps everyone around her calm. While Cook cautioned that his team can't rely solely on Foecke, he expects her to be in top form again on Saturday.
"The best way I can explain it is that Mikaela has a very deep inner confidence," Cook said. "She has a deep belief in everything she does. She's proven it over and over and over."
Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said it "isn't going to be easy" to limit Foecke in the title match. His plan is to serve aggressively and to keep the Cardinal offense simple, allowing it to set up effectively for the block.
Saturday's championship could mark the end of Foecke's volleyball career. Cook said U.S. national coach Karch Kiraly wants her to pursue a spot on the national team, but she has applied to veterinary school and is uncertain whether she will continue to play.
Either way, she is committed to making her last college match a memorable one.
"I'm not thinking ahead at all," Foecke said. "I'm just trying to live in this moment and enjoy every last second with these girls."
This article is written by Rachel Blount from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.