LINCOLN — Kenzie Maloney had been a supporting conspirator on Senior Night the first three years of her Nebraska career. So when it was her turn, she knew the underclassmen put up streamers in the locker room. She was ready for the emotional postmatch video tribute. She was steeled for any possible surprise they could throw at her.
Until they blindsided her by bringing her younger sister onto the court to sing the national anthem.
“Kenzie was crying, so I was worried ‘Oh great, here we go, she’s going to start shanking balls now,’ ” Nebraska coach John Cook said.
It was the first of many feel-good moments for the Huskers’ three seniors, who each provided a sellout crowd reasons to smile in No. 6 Nebraska’s 25-13, 25-10, 25-18 sweep of Maryland on Saturday.
Nebraska director of volleyball operations Lindsay Peterson worked up the prematch surprise, squirreling away Kimberly Maloney in Cook’s office to warm up her voice before the match, and after she nailed “The Star Spangled Banner,” the Huskers rarely hit a sour note to end the regular season on an eight-match winning streak.
“I was kind of nervous for her, but she was really good,” Kenzie Maloney said. “I love listening to her sing, so it was a good surprise.”
Maloney’s three aces and 11 digs both led all players, and Nebraska (24-6, 15-5 Big Ten) hit. 414 in the win, the team’s third-highest efficiency of the season.
NU’s two other seniors had moments to bask, too. In her final regular-season home match, Mikaela Foecke led everyone with 16 kills against just one error. Her .577 attack percentage was her best mark in Big Ten play this year.
“I thought it was just a lot of fun,” Foecke said. “I thought we went out and executed really well tonight. You always see Senior Night can go one way or the other, with poor execution or great. I thought the team came out really focused tonight in spite of all the distractions as Coach would say.”
Cook has seen how the extra attention paid to Senior Night can lead to some sloppy play that dampens the night’s celebratory feel. By the time Foecke had scored on seven of her eight swings in the first set, with NU leading 23-10 at one point, it was clear the Huskers weren’t gazing ahead to Sunday night’s unveiling of the NCAA tournament bracket.
“I think we’ve got three great senior leaders who made sure of that,” Cook said. “There’s all kinds of stuff going on. They decorate the locker room. But, Foecke’s telling me to make sure I’m taking deep breaths before the match, and she’s all over everybody making sure we’re dialed in and ready to go.”
Foecke’s final kill came in the closing moments on an assist from reserve setter Brooke Smith, who set the match’s final seven rallies. The Devaney Center crowd of 8,139 fans were on their feet as the senior from Weatherford, Texas, headed to check in.
Smith, who spent her first two seasons at Nebraska, transferred to Kansas State, and returned this season, tied her season high with two set assists in her 11th appearance of the year.
“It felt great for me,” Smith said. “(Foecke is) someone I’ve been able to count on on and off the court for years now, so I just think that was a cool experience for me. I love watching her crush balls.”
“When she came in, you could see the reaction from our team,” Cook said. “That says it all about the relationship and the role and what they think of Brooke. It’s pretty special.”
Nebraska capped one of its best defensive weekends of the season by holding Maryland (18-14, 9-11) to .021 hitting a night after forcing Ohio State to hit negative-.044. NU limited Terrapin sophomore Erika Pritchard, the Big Ten’s leader in kills, to seven kills and four errors on 26 attacks.
Husker sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had a match-high six blocks and put down eight kills on 14 swings to move her hitting percentage to .401 on the season.
“We held two Big Ten teams to (negative-.044) and .021,” Cook said. “That’s pretty good volleyball right there.”
The win left Nebraska in a tie with Wisconsin for third place in the Big Ten after the Badgers pulled out a five-set win at Penn State on Saturday.
That could leave some tough decisions for the NCAA tournament selection committee about where to seed the five Big Ten teams currently ranked in the top 10. The brackets will be released on ESPNU’s selection show Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Nebraska’s path to the final four in Minneapolis will almost certainly, however, start at the Devaney Center. Where NU might travel for the regional round is less clear, but Maloney would remind the Huskers’ seven newcomers to focus “point by point and game by game,” even in the high stakes of the postseason.
And maybe even a few more pleasant surprises will pop up to enjoy along the way.
“You can’t really look ahead to the final four even thought that’s our goal,” Maloney said. “I think it’s just focusing on first round, second round, and then taking it point by point and really focusing on the opponent at hand instead of looking so far ahead.”
Maryland (18-14, 8-11)…………..13 10 18
At Nebraska (24-6, 15-5)………..25 25 25
UM (kills-aces-blocks): Pritchard 7-0-3, Twilley 6-0-1, Myers 3-0-4, Jones 2-0-3, Alford 1-0-1, Schriner 1-0-2, Snyder 0-2-0
NU: Foecke 16-0-2, Stivrins 8-0-6, Sun 6-0-1, Schwarzenbach 5-0-2, Sweet 4-0-3, Davis 4-0-0, Hames 3-1-1, Maloney 0-3-0, Miller 0-1-0
Set Assists: M 20 (Alford 15, Rivas 3, Bentz 1, Rubino 1), N 41 (Hames 32, Maloney 3, Foecke 2, Miller 2, Smith 2).