MINNEAPOLIS — Kathryn Plummer walked to the podium with a piece of the net around her neck as a memento from Stanford’s NCAA Division I record eighth national championship claimed in five sets against Nebraska — one of the greatest championship matches in years.
In her arms was the one thing she cherished in 2016 but could only covet after last season’s emotional loss in the national semifinals.
The championship trophy is heading back to Palo Alto.
“All in all, I think we're elated and exhausted,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said.
Stanford came into the 2018 national championship match after steamrolling BYU in the semifinal. Nebraska just repeated its effort from Thursday by never quitting and being incredibly difficult to put away.
In the end, it was the most dominant team all season that ended up with the hardware. Had Nebraska won, the trophy would be going to a team that lost five of seven at one point this season — albeit in a challenging Big Ten Conference. However, after the way the Huskers played Saturday, there would be no doubt they were deserving, which might not have been something said when the tournament began in late November.
Now that the final point has been won, confetti has been dropped, a champion has been crowned and the confetti has been swept away, here are seven things we learned from the 2018 NCAA volleyball championship.
1. Defeat is a powerful motivator
When Hambly was asked about how much last season’s semifinals loss and this season's lone loss to BYU played into its dominant performance on Thursday in the semifinals, the answer was frank: “100 percent.”
Stanford carried that anguish with it every step of the way until it could celebrate once again.
“We were really frustrated about last year,” Hambly said. “The things we asked them to do were not easy.”
On the other side, Nebraska had its defeats in the middle of the season. The Huskers didn’t really come all that close to winning the Big Ten, but they came within a couple points of winning the title that truly matters for a second straight season and a third time in four seasons. It was that close because those earlier losses stung.
When a team has leaders like a Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, those defeats only make the team stronger.
“We had several times to implode the ship. I mean, we lost three in a row,” Nebraska coach John Cook said Friday. “These guys didn't even flinch.”
2. Stanford goes as Morgan Hentz goes
Plummer is one of the best players Stanford has had in program history. There’s no denying that.
The two-time national player of the year led the Cardinal with 19 kills, but without key contributions from many other players, Stanford likely would have been the one watching the other team celebrate on the floor Saturday night. Morgan Hentz, with her career-high 32 digs, was the biggest contributor.
Two years ago when this Stanford junior class won its first national championship, Hentz had 27 digs in a four-set match.
It wasn’t only the total number of digs that made her performance so impressive. It was also how she made them. There were so many rallies in the final sets where Hentz kept the play alive after she left her feet. On the final play of the match, she dug a hard swing from Foecke that went directly to setter Jenna Gray.
3. We didn’t appreciate Mikaela Foecke enough
If Reggie Jackson is baseball's Mr. October, then Foecke is college volleyball's Ms. December.
She was absolutely unstoppable against Stanford, the nation’s best blocking team, which completely stopped BYU’s All-American Roni Jones-Perry on Thursday night. Foecke was the best player on the court Saturday night with 27 kills and a .296 hitting percentage.
“Foecke was unbelievable in that match,” Hambly said. “We couldn't touch her. It's sad to see her leave the sport — not the sport, but leave the NCAA. She's going to have a long career ahead of her.”
Cook said Foecke will likely be going to veterinary school after graduating from Nebraska, so it’s possible this is the end of the road for the senior. Even if it’s not, she won’t be putting on a Nebraska uniform anymore, which is a shame for the sport. She was one of the best-ever to play in Lincoln and she was always terrific on the biggest stage.
Her final stats in this tournament included 101 kills, 16 errors, 4.59 kills per set and a .362 hitting percentage with four double-doubles. Her career stats in three national championship matches: 66 kills, 5.50 kills per set and a .301 hitting percentage.
“I think they're two of the greatest players and people that have ever come through this program,” said middle Lauren Stivrins on Foecke and fellow senior Kenzie Maloney. “The legacy they leave behind is second to none.”
4. Holly Campbell has arrived
Even if Stanford is returning just about every rotation player next year, it will miss the play and leadership of senior middle blocker Tami Alade.
That leadership quality might not be present in Holly Campbell yet, but the 6-4 freshman middle blocker had her best game of her young career on Saturday and was as big of a factor as Hentz in the outcome.
Campbell had 15 kills and just one error on 29 swings. It was a career-high in kills and attempts. She also had three crucial kills in the fifth set. Coming into the title match, Campbell had just 28 total kills this tournament.
“For her to be that clutch in this big of a moment speaks volumes about her hard work and also her heart,” Hambly said. “She's a special kid.”
5. Lauren Stivrins is ready to lead Nebraska in 2019
Stivrins has benefitted playing alongside Foecke for the past two seasons. Saturday night, you could've made the argument that Foecke benefitted from Stivrins.
The middle blocker showed why she was given the honor of being a first-team All-American with a career-high 19 kills on an absurd .615 hitting percentage.
The Huskers will have a really different look next season without Foecke and Maloney. Lexi Sun didn’t have her best match in the championship, but she was crucial in topping Illinois in the semifinal and will be a main focus of the offense moving forward. Cook said in the postgame press conference that Stivrins will be one of the leaders for the team moving forward. After that match, it’s not hard to see why.
6. Nebraska’s future is still bright with Nicklin Hames
Focusing on Nebraska’s future, Husker fans have to like what they saw out of freshman setter Nicklin Hames on the biggest stage in the sport. Hames also had a career-high with 62 assists, including 16 in the first set that went extra points.
There were always going to be growing pains with Hames, as there always is with a freshman setter. Whatever those pains were early, she has seemed to grow out of them. Cook said he has big plans for her in the offseason.
“She's a warrior,” he said. “I'm looking forward to getting another year training her, getting her in our strength program, all that stuff. We got a great foundation to build on with her.”
7. The sport continues to grow. And matches like Saturday’s help.
The 2018 national championship match in the Target Center was at least the fourth consecutive sellout crowd in a championship match. Last year’s championship match crowd broke an NCAA attendance record with 18,516 people. Thursday night’s crowd was recorded as 17,808.
With the national semifinals and championship match being regular broadcasted on ESPN for over a decade now, the popularity of the sport continues to grow. Just in Minnesota, the Star Tribune reported that there were more than 4,000 more girls playing high school volleyball in the state than girls basketball.
When there are two blue-blood programs competing in an instant classic with the raucous Nebraska crowd on hand, it only makes the sport feel that much bigger.