LINCOLN — The red-and-white streamers fell to the floor, beating by seconds a couple tears from John Cook, who lauded his team in a voice croaking with emotion.
This was the title unexpected, and so all the more cherished. Nebraska clinched a second straight Big Ten championship with a 25-12, 25-15, 25-23 sweep of Iowa at the Devaney Center on Saturday night, sending off the team’s senior class as the first one in NU history to win multiple titles in the nation’s toughest volleyball league.
The Huskers share the championship with No. 1 Penn State, which beat Minnesota 3-1 on Saturday to equal NU’s 19-1 Big Ten record. The Nittany Lions ended the regular season with 19 straight wins. Their lone loss came to Nebraska in the conference opener on Sept. 22.
“Coach was just telling us how winning the Big Ten over 10 weeks is so hard, and it’s probably one of the biggest challenges,” Annika Albrecht said. “We’re really grateful for this, and we worked so hard, and we deserve it.”
Nebraska will find out its postseason road Sunday night when the NCAA tournament brackets are unveiled at 8 p.m. on ESPNU. The Huskers will certainly host first- and second-round matches and figure to be in contention for one of the four regional top seeds that would allow them to stay at the Devaney Center all the way to the final four.
Cook doesn’t make a habit of dialing down expectations for a program that stockpiles 20-win seasons and has cluttered the Devaney Center with title banners. But after the match, he pulled back the curtain.
Four starters, including three All-Americans, graduated after last year. All but two starters this season played with new responsibilities. Add in two new assistants and more new faces on the team’s support staff, and Cook figured the Huskers would take their lumps in 2017.
“If you’d have asked me in August if we would be having this conversation tonight, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you,” Cook said.
“But, to do what this group did, and as we were building, I think they really put in and made the magic for this team to win. It was not easy, but they worked really hard at it.”
No player may embody Nebraska’s storybook run through the Big Ten more than Albrecht.
After spending her first three seasons as a back-row specialist, the senior from North Aurora, Illinois, earned the starting outside hitter job for which she’d long worked and became the team’s second-leading attacker.
Saturday, in a third set that featured 13 ties and seven lead changes, Albrecht had a hand — and foot — in every part of the dramatics.
Tied 19-19, Albrecht hit a ball into the Iowa block that was headed to the Husker floor before she kicked it up into the air to keep the play alive. The rally ended with Iowa’s Cali Hoye hitting into a triple Husker block, and Albrecht scored from well off the net on the next rally to put Nebraska up 21-19.
“We kick it around before practice some times,” Albrecht said. “I didn’t want to get blocked, so I can’t say I planned it.”
“She does stuff like that all the time,” said senior Briana Holman, who had 10 kills and eight blocks. “She’s so good.”
Iowa outside hitter Taylor Louis was nearly equal to the task. Louis had 14 kills, including scoring on four straight rallies in the final set to give the Hawkeyes a 23-21 lead.
Albrecht ended the Hawkeyes’ run with her ninth and final kill, which began Nebraska’s decisive final stretch.
Foecke was unstoppable through the first two sets with 13 kills before Iowa denied her kills on her first 10 swings of the finale. She wouldn’t falter at the finish, with back-to-back kills to put the Huskers at match point, and a bad set on the next rally forced Louis to send back a free ball, which sailed just wide.
“I almost feel it’s more exciting (compared to last season) just because last year there was all the expectation to win,” said Foecke, who reached at least 15 kills for the seventh time this year. “We came in ranked No. 1 last year. This year, it was kind of like, ‘What is Nebraska going to be? What’s our team identity?’ We really came out this year and proved we are a great team and we are capable of being up there with all the big dogs.”
With the title in hand, the celebration commenced. The team donned red T-shirts and hats emblazoned with “back-to-back champions,” before each of the five seniors was introduced with a video and stood in the middle of the court with their families.
The seniors eventually filtered together — Albrecht, Holman, setter Kelly Hunter, defensive specialist Sydney Townsend, and middle blocker Allie Havers — for a photo. They were then engulfed in a group hug before Cook came over to address the last team huddle of the regular season.
“(He said) he really wanted this for us,” Holman said, “and he’s never wanted something so bad for a team because he felt this team really deserved it because we did work hard. We started on this journey in the summer.”
It ended up being another banner year after all.
Iowa (18-15, 7-13) ……….. 12 15 23
At Nebraska (26-4, 19-1) … 25 25 25
UI (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Louis 14-0-2, O’Neill 4-0-2, Sheehan 3-0-2, Janota 3-1-1, Alm 3-0-1, Orr 1-0-1.
NU: Foecke 15-0-3, Holman 10-0-8, Albrecht 9-2-1, Stivrins 3-0-2, Sweet 3–0-4, Hunter 1-0-2, Maloney 0-1-0.
Set Assists: I 25 (Orr 20, Olsen 3, Kelly 1, Alm 1), N 38 (Hunter 30, Maloney 6, Foecke 1, Sweet 1). Attendance: 8,276