John Cook, when asked when was the first moment he thought his team might win the 2017 National Championship – “It never happened. I still don’t believe we won it.”
John Cook had good reason to be skeptical about the 2017 season. The Huskers graduated four starters from the 2016 team, three of them All Americans who would go on to play for the U.S. national team or professional volleyball. He also had to replace two assistant coaches, Dani Busboom and Chris Tamas who became head coaches at Louisville and Illinois.
In early August, Cook’s starting setter, 5’11” senior Kelly Hunter, who hadled the Huskers to a national championship in 2015, discovered that she couldn’t lift her arm above her shoulder. Kelly had an upper body injury that would keep her from serving, blocking, and practicing against live attack through the first month of the season.
The injury also kept her from playing in the first two matches, a 1-3 loss to Oregon and a 2-3 loss to Florida in a late August tournament in Gainesville. She would only play backrow in the next three matches. Her first match as a six-rotation setter was against UCLA on September 8, and she wouldn’t be at full strength until mid-October.
Hunter was a much better setter and leader than many people outside the Big Ten Conference were aware of. She isn’t flashy. She doesn’t set the middle from her knees or execute a 360° spin-set to her right-side attacker from fifteen feet off the net. What she does do is set hittable balls. She is a strong blocker and plays exceptional floor defense. She has a mindset that allows her to move on to the next play, and most importantly, she wins.
Hunter had taken a redshirt year in 2014 because she didn’t want to sit another year behind senior setter Mary Pollmiller, who had transferred from Tennessee the previous season. In November of 2014, Mary was struggling in practice with double contacts. Coach Cook approached Hunter and asked if she would abandon her redshirt year and be ready to go. Hunter said no thank you. If Hunter had burned that year of eligibility, Nebraska would not have been competing for a national championship in 2017.
The same would hold true with senior middle blocker Briana Holman who had paid her own way to come to Nebraska from LSU in 2015. Cook had tried everything to get LSU to release Briana to play immediately. LSU had released Holman to several schools, including Penn State, but not Nebraska.
When LSU did not release Briana, Cook moved Amber Rolfzen from a
right-side attacker position to middle blocker where she became a
dominant player, dominant enough to lead the Huskers with 1.58 blocks per set and attack and a .372 attack percentage. She became a major factor in the Huskers National Championship run in 2015.
If LSU had granted Briana’s release, Nebraska may not have won the
National Championship in 2015 because Amber Rolfzen would have
remained on the right side. Equally important is the fact that Holman
wouldn’t have produced 26 kills and .536 attack percentage in two matches against Penn State in 2017 because she would have exhausted her two years of eligibility. Holman was the most efficient attacker and blocker in the championship rounds but went unnoticed in conference and national honors.
Entering 2017, Nebraska was extremely thin at the left-side hitter position. Two players returned with experience: 6’3” junior Mikela Foecke, the MVP of Nebraska’s National Championship in 2015, who has a cannon for an arm, and Olivia Boender a redshirt junior who had come off the bench in previous years to give the Huskers an offensive boost.
Medical issues would prevent Boender from traveling and she eventually left the team. That meant that Annika Albrecht a 6’ senior defensive specialist for her entire career at Nebraska, would have to become a six rotation outside hitter.
Cook had hired Tyler Hildebrand a former All American outside hitter, U.S. National team player, and assistant men’s coach at Long Beach State to replace the departed Chris Tamas. Hildebrand’s first project was tutoring Albrecht on how a smaller outside hitter could be an effective attacker at an elite level.
Albrecht had 25 kills and 19 errors hitting out of the back row in 2016 for a .070 attack percentage. After watching hours of video with Hildebrand, Albrecht developed several shots and strategies on how to attack the block. The results were remarkable. Annika hit .278 while averaging over three kills per set in the Big Ten Conference.
Mikaela Foecke was also going through a transformation. In her first two seasons, she played only in the front row, while being trained to eventually become a six-rotation player. Throughout the first half of the season, Foecke would be a serving target for opponents, not because of her performance, but because on a team that returned a core of solid passers in libero Kenzie Maloney, Albrecht, and defensive specialist Sydney Townsend.
It made sense for opponents to test the player with the least experience. Foecke hit .326 in the Big Ten Conference with every team setting up their defense to try and stop her. In twenty conference matches and 69 sets Foecke had only ten reception errors while averaging 3.7 kills per set. With each match her middle back play improved to the point that by the end of the regular season Foecke and Albrecht were the best pair of middle back defenders in the Big Ten.
The one person who was aware of this development was Cook’s other hire, Kayla Banwarth, a former walk-on at Nebraska who became a four-year starter for the Huskers and who was a libero with the U.S. National Team from 2011 through the Rio Olympics. Kayla was one of several butterfly effects that brought about a national championship for Nebraska.
If you want to win a Division I national championship run a 5-1system. The last team to run a 6-2 offense and win a division I national championship was USC in 2003 when they defeated Florida 3-1 in Dallas. That does not mean a 6-2 is not the best system for any given team.
Teams run two setter offenses for various reasons: Sometimes they don’t have a middle attacker that is effective off one foot behind the setter. Sometimes a setter is too small to set a strong block. Sometimes a team struggles to side-out with only two front row options. Sometimes one of the setters is also team’s best pin hitter.
It is rare, however, for a team to run a 6-2 offense when a team has an extraordinary setter. Coincidentally, an extraordinary setter is also the best path to a national championship.
Nebraska would face two teams in Kansas City that ran two different, two-setter offenses. Penn State ran a traditional 6-2 with one of the setters, 6’ senior, Abby Detering, also playing in the front row as a right-side attacker. Penn State led the nation with a .339 attack percentage.
A 6-2 offense, however, meant fewer sets (perhaps 2 a set) to Haleigh Washington who was arguably the best slide hitter in the country. Washington’s attack percentage was over .500 for the regular season. She was the closest thing to a sure kill in college volleyball. Had Penn State run a 5-1 with ten more sets to Washington behind the setter, it would have been an even more difficult task for anyone to beat the Lions.
The challenge for Nebraska defensively was in reducing the percentage of in-system sets that Washington and Big Ten Player of the Year, 6’1” senior outside hitter Simone Lee, would get during the match. Both have futures as international players. Unless they were underset they were almost impossible to stop at the net.
Florida ran a hybrid 5-2 system, with a smaller backrow setter, 5’9” redshirt junior, Allie Monserez, who was subbed out in the front row for 6’2” sophomore setter Cheyenne Huskey, a stronger blocker. Monserez set go-to right-side attacker 6’ senior Shainah Joseph who hit .356 for the year. Huskey set four-time All American middle blocker, 6’ 4” Rahmat Alhassan who hit .401 for the year.
Florida left side hitter Carli Snyder had 1,230 attacks, more than twice as many as anyone else. In system, Florida had four very strong attackers. Out-of- system, Florida had one option, Carli Snyder. Snyder hit for a .225 attack percentage on the season, but if the Gators would have had a second strong left-side hitter, Snyder’s attack percentage would likely have climbed to .260 with
fewer backrow attacks.
Serving and passing are not the “wow” skills that many collegiate teams focus on in recruiting because coaches believe that with a libero and fifteen subs they can find smaller defensive specialists to bring in for the “bigs.” But evaluating who can pass at the college level while watching club volleyball is about as productive as finding the right cantaloupe at a Winn-Dixie in winter.
If you are running a wash drill where teams are receiving free balls instead of tough serves, both Penn State and Florida might dominate Nebraska. But they do not play Newcomb in the NCAA tournament.
Think of the 2017 Nebraska volleyball team as a torpedo boat-destroyer, not a military ship equipped to destroy submarines, but a volleyball teamdesigned to blow-up two-setter offenses. The weapons are two strong back-row attackers, Foecke and Albrecht, who can attack the opponent’s back-row setters and force the opponent into uncomfortable situations. The back-row attackers are complemented by six strong servers that are moving receivers between 3’ and 10’ off the backline.
The Huskers were also the best passing team in the tournament with a setter who makes great decisions. Hunter’s talent is leveraged when playing against a two-setter system because her hitters do not have to adjust to different tempos and two different decision makers. This advantage is maximized in end-game and has resulted in a 16-1 record for the Huskers when Kelly Hunter is the setter in NCAA tournament matches.
Nebraska also saw remarkable development in three players during the last two weeks of the season. Junior libero, Kenzie Maloney, served nine of her thirty-seven aces in the last three matches of the NCAA tournament. She also had several long service runs that either created separation from the opponent or brought Nebraska back from of three or more points. The improvement in her serving wasn’t technical but a decision by Kenzie to serve with confidence because that is what her team needed.
Freshman right-side player Jazz Sweet started the season strong but had trouble scoring kills against a single block during the second half of theconference season. She was being dug on crosscourt attack. Sweet altered her mindset, and began attacking the opponent’s block. With success, Hunter trusted her even more, and she had several critical side-outs in the fourth and fifth sets while attacking against Penn State’s Simone Lee, perhaps the most intimidating left side blocker in the country.
Throughout most of the season redshirt freshman 6’ 4” Lauren Stivrins was a good attacker and a solid blocker. She became a different player in the fourth and fifth sets in the semifinal match against Penn State. She had nine blocks in the match and won several critical jousts by out-quicking the opponent across the net.
Despite all this, Penn State served to win the match with the score 26-25 in the fourth set. Nebraska mishandled the serve and had to bump set the ball to Briana Holman who hit the ball to Penn State’s libero Kendall White at middle back. White dug the ball perfectly to the net, but Penn State’s right side player, 6’2” Heidi Thelen, never turned her head to pick up the ball or the back-row setter and as Thelen started to transition to the sideline, she inadvertently tripped Abby Detering. Detering collapsed as the ball hit the net and dropped to the floor. It was Deus Ex Machina for the Big Red.
What some may not remember is that Kelly Hunter served to win the same set at 24–22 and served the ball out in Nebraska’s strongest blocking rotation. After the misplay by Penn State at 25-26, Nebraska went on to win the fourth set on a block from Stivrins, and a wipe off-the-block from Sweet.
At a press conference before the semifinals, Penn State head coach Russ Rose said that the one thing he could guarantee is that Penn State would never play tight. I was startled when he said it, not because it hadn’t been true. Penn’s State’s dominance in college volleyball has been, in large part, because they have had extraordinary talent and their teams have appeared to play stress free at critical points in tournament matches. But why would you say it? Did it indicate that subconsciously he may have had that
concern, or was as he sending a message to his players? In either case, I made a mental note of it to see whether or not that proved to be true.
The fifth set was a mixture of unforced errors and courageous plays. Both teams missed serves, and at times mishandled the ball. The determining factor was the confidence in Hunter’s setting and decision making. Penn State’s setters were playing hard but frequently undersetting or not communicating with their attackers. It was the best time to be in a 5-1 system with a setter that everyone trusted.
I thought there was a very good chance that the team that won Penn State–Nebraska semifinal would likely win the national championship, although Stanford might have been the toughest matchup for Nebraska. But Stanford was flatter than the state of Kansas in the first two sets against Florida. The pressure of repeating with a new coach had not surfaced during the season, but it is impossible to replicate that pressure in practice or even conference play.
Florida had their own kind of motivation and pressure. They had come back from the dead in a regional final against USC when everything seemed lost. Florida’s hall of fame head coach, Mary Wise, called a timeout in the fourth set against USC and at the top of her voice exhorted her team to compete.
It was almost like a jockey hopping off a horse, running in front of it, and pleading with the horse to run faster. Coach Wise willed her team to the fifth set and a victory. But should a team capable of winning a national championship need a head coach to challenge it to compete?
Florida’s best chance to defeat Nebraska was either to stay in-system so Alhassan and Joseph could be sets of choice, or hope that Nebraska would look over the edge for the first time this season, and realize they were playing for the national championship. Florida was in-system for the third set, which resulted in a .308 attack percentage and a 25-18 win.
But Nebraska did what they had done for most of the year in the other three sets. They held both Penn State and Florida to over 100 points below their season attack percentages, while playing better floor defense, serving tougher, and getting the ball to the player who would make better decisions than anyone else in the tournament, Kelly Hunter.