LINCOLN — To come around the corner of a Devaney Center hallway and spy outside hitters Mikaela Foecke and Sami Slaughter catching their breath, recovering from an afternoon conditioning session, dispels any notion that the Nebraska volleyball team relaxed during an atypical spring practice period.
The defending national champions recently wrapped up their offseason indoor workouts away from public view. Without either of two setters likely to be on the team this fall, coach John Cook eschewed the traditional spring exhibition match. The only glimpse fans got of the Huskers was when they received their 2017 NCAA championship rings at halftime of the football spring game last weekend.
But Foecke expects the work the Huskers put in over the last month to be an essential foundation for their title defense this fall.
Nebraska must replace five seniors from 2017, and the Huskers could have up to seven new players on the fall roster, including four freshmen and high-profile transfer outside hitter Lexi Sun, last season’s Big 12 freshman of the year at Texas.
“I think we were just working on accomplishing more team cohesion,” Foecke said. “This past season, ‘With each other, for each other’ was our slogan, but we lost five players. Kind of finding it within ourselves and preparing for the freshmen that are going to come here in June.”
Nebraska has been here before. NU graduated four starters off the 2016 team that reached the NCAA semifinals, but developed into a juggernaut that ended last season on a 19-match winning streak to capture the program’s second NCAA crown in three years.
“It’s pretty much the same situation as last year,” Slaughter said. “Everyone kind of doubted us.”
Foecke, the NCAA championship’s co-most outstanding player, spent the spring fine-tuning the nonattacking aspects of her game entering her second season playing all six rotations. The rising senior took 110 swings in Nebraska’s last two matches in December, then didn’t take another until recently. She skipped NU’s winter beach volleyball season to rest a sore right shoulder that took more than 1,100 attempts last fall.
NU’s spring focus on serving, passing and defense continued the cultural shift Cook has engineered over the past few seasons. Nebraska notched the Big Ten’s lowest opponent attack percentage in 2016 and 2017.
The emphasis also was practical since the Huskers await the summer arrival of freshman Nicklin Hames, the country’s top-rated setter recruit, plus an expected transfer setter. Outgoing senior All-America setter Kelly Hunter practiced with the team in spring workouts, but was prevented by NCAA rules from competing in any exhibition.
“Not having a setter really isn’t that much of a difference,” Foecke said. “It’s just like any other position. Last year, we didn’t really have a right side hitter per se (in the spring).”
Instead, the Huskers focused on what they could control, making individual strides and building the groundwork to welcome the fleet of newcomers. Upperclassmen asked last year’s freshmen how they could better help new teammates get acclimated, and the player who exhibited the most positive effort in each spring practice was rewarded by coaches with a championship belt emblazoned with the letters “EDMF,” an abbreviation that remains a team secret.
Foecke said Slaughter and rising sophomore defensive specialist Hayley Densberger stood out as players who made big improvements in the spring, with Densberger, from Malcolm, Nebraska, earning the belt more than any other Husker.
“Hayley, her defense was impeccable this spring,” Foecke said. “No ball hit the floor. She was all over it. As a hitter, that’s so frustrating.”
For Slaughter, who nabbed the belt once, there was both physical and mental growth. The sophomore from Harrisburg, South Dakota, focused on controlling her hybrid jump serve and developing a portfolio of off-speed shots. She will be part of a crowded outside hitter unit vying for playing time next to Foecke with the addition of Sun and incoming freshman Capri Davis of Mansfield, Texas.
“I’m just going to work my butt off this entire summer,” Slaughter said. “I’m coming here for presession in May. I’ll be in the gym every day and lifting all the time. I’m just going to go all out, 100 percent.”
Just as important as the on-court development will be the unity developed away from the court. Hunter and NU’s other graduating captain, Annika Albrecht, served as the Huskers’ emotional compass, doling out encouragement and admonishment when appropriate.
It created an atmosphere in which any player could be lifted up in praise and none spared criticism. But it requires a high level of trust that next fall’s team will need to expedite with at least 11 players who will have been in the program for one year or less.
The team hopes a series of offseason social activities will start to build those bonds. Cookouts, movie nights, maybe a weekend getaway at the Slaughter family cabin in South Dakota.
But the buy-in from new players has to begin, Foecke said, with an example set by the returning Huskers .
“We just need to work on holding ourselves accountable,” Foecke said. “We can’t expect them to do one thing if we’re not doing it ourselves.”