The play that defines Kenzie Maloney’s career — and saved Nebraska’s season

The play that defines Kenzie Maloney’s career — and saved Nebraska’s season
Nebraska senior libero Kenzie Maloney had always been content to lead by example — until this season. Maloney and the Huskers’ other first-time captain, Mikaela Foecke, have had to become more vocal to spark Nebraska. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — There’s no real way of knowing what would have happened if Kenzie Maloney had listened to the voices of her coaches and teammates, screaming, to a person, for her to stop. Maybe Nebraska wins the rally anyway, takes the opening set regardless, and still finds a way to gut out the victory over Penn State that pulled its season out of the ditch.

But in a senior year that, to that point, was merely plodding along in a disappointing fashion, the voice in Maloney’s head was louder. Her grandparents had made another 11-hour drive to watch her play. Her high school coach’s whistle still rang in her ears. And she had three younger sisters at home whom she wasn’t about to disappoint.

Just before the full sprint sent Maloney crashing into the Huskers’ bench, the voice in her head said what it usually did. You will get to this ball, or you will die trying.

“That play might have been a turning point for this team, that single play,” Nebraska assistant Kayla Banwarth said.

The story has been told several times this year. Maloney’s save prolonged Nebraska’s longest rally of the season, which the Huskers won as part of a five-set victory over Penn State on Nov. 2. For the Huskers, the win ended a worrisome slide of five losses in seven matches and kicked off the team’s current six-match win streak. For Maloney, it was another way for the senior captain to leave her imprint on a program that she’s helped lead to unprecedented heights.

“You see her going out and laying her whole body on the line,” fellow captain Mikaela Foecke said, “and you want to do the same thing and put it all out there so you don’t have any regrets later.”

As the careers of Maloney, Foecke and fellow senior Brooke Smith come to a close, the regrets are greatly outnumbered by the achievements. The senior trio for No. 6 Nebraska (22-6 overall, 13-5 Big Ten) will play their final regular-season home matches this weekend, starting with Friday’s match against Ohio State (12-18, 3-15) at 7 p.m. on NET followed by a 7 p.m. Saturday meeting with Maryland (17-13, 8-10).

Maloney’s hands have been on the match-winning point of two NCAA championship victories. She’s been a defensive anchor of teams that reached the final four in each of her first three seasons, and this year, she leads a unit that ranks second in the nation in opponent hitting percentage.

It’s more than she could have hoped for when she inherited the starting libero job amid a time of personal uncertainty. Maloney had formed a close bond with then-NU assistant Dani Busboom Kelly, who had recruited Maloney out of Louisville, Kentucky, and focused on coaching the Huskers’ back-row specialists. On the weekend the 2016 NCAA tournament bracket was revealed, Busboom Kelly told the team she had accepted the Louisville coaching job.

“We had a super close bond, super great relationship, so when she left, it was tough,” Maloney said. “But Kayla has done a great job filling her shoes. I’m just honored to have those two as the two defensive coaches that I’ve had here.”

At the same time, Maloney admits she was intimidated by the task of succeeding four-year starting libero Justine Wong-Orantes, a fan favorite who became Nebraska’s all-time digs leader. However, Maloney came to Lincoln with her own impressive pedigree.

She played for high school powerhouse Louisville Assumption and the nationally renowned KIVA club program, both coached by Ron Kordes, a disciplined taskmaster who prescribed enough wind sprints that Maloney said NU coach John Cook’s practices are a relief by comparison.

“She came through a system of really tough coaches, so she’s tough,” Cook said. “She’s the oldest of four girls and she’s a tough dude. I’d want her in my foxhole in battle.”

As soon as Maloney arrived at Nebraska, Cook could tell he had an elite athlete. Maloney played outside hitter in high school, surprising bigger opponents with her ability to get kills. She was one of only a handful of freshmen ever to score 2,000 points in the team’s athletic performance index testing, and she’ll leave NU with the program’s highest score ever, surpassing former stars like Jordan Larson and Kadie and Amber Rolfzen.

Yet growing into the leader the 2018 Huskers would need took Maloney some time. As a quiet freshman surrounded by her older, bigger teammates, Cook referred to her as a “pipsqueak,” which former Husker Annika Albrecht shortened to “Pip” or “Pippi,” a nickname Maloney still carries despite now being one of the more vocal Huskers.

With her three younger sisters or in her first three college seasons, Maloney was content to lead by example. But as the first-time captains of a team with seven newcomers, Maloney and Foecke learned this year’s Huskers needed more.

Filled with affable, laid-back personalities, the team jelled easily off the court, Maloney said. Yet NU’s on-court communication was lacking, and the intensity that marked the Huskers’ recent teams still needed to be sparked.

Coaches and teammates believe Maloney’s breathless pursuit of the ball in that first-set rally against Penn State was the flint-meet-tinder moment Nebraska required. With Cook and Banwarth both yelling for her to pull up and move on to the next rally, Maloney had just enough time to shout back defiantly before tipping the ball back into play.

“There’s no telling Kenzie to stop when her mind’s made up,” middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said.

“Every point matters,” Maloney said. “It doesn’t matter what set you’re in, if you’re leading or down. Every point matters, and you want to hustle after each ball.”

It was the embodiment of what Cook calls Nebraska’s point-by-point mentality, but it leaves Maloney with little time for sentiment going into her final regular-season matches at the Devaney Center. Sometime in December, her college career will finish, and that will be hard, she said.

But that’s not where her legacy ends. In May, Maloney, the daughter of a delivery driver and a sales associate, will become her family’s first college graduate. Then she hopes for a happy homecoming in Louisville, where she’s discussed the possibility with Busboom Kelly of becoming a graduate assistant while working on a master’s degree.

Nothing’s guaranteed, Maloney understands. She’s hoping for a job interview over Christmas break, a chance to make her case to her old coach.

But knowing what we do about Kenzie Maloney and hot pursuit, do you really think she’s leaving without a “yes”?

“I’ll buy her lunch,” Maloney said, “or whatever it takes.”

Ohio State at Nebraska

When: 6:30 p.m.

Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM