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NCAA volleyball: Huskers' winning streak hits 12 on way to Sweet 16

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Last season was an inconsistent, up-and-down affair for the Nebraska volleyball team.

The Huskers beat eventual national champion Penn State one night, then suffered a horrible loss to unranked Ohio State the next. Win at Michigan State, then get embarrassed by Michigan. Stun third-ranked Washington on its home court in the NCAA Sweet 16, then get swept by No. 12 BYU in the Elite Eight.

It was a head-shaking three months as Nebraska slipped as low as No. 14 in the AVCA poll. That inconsistency bothered NU coach John Cook. Got to get it fixed in 2015, he said.

Hopefully, then, you appreciate the consistency of the Huskers’ current 12-match winning streak, the latest victory an impressive 25-19, 25-19, 25-14 sweep of Wichita State on Saturday at the Devaney Sports Center in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska trailed for a total of five rallies.

The bulk of NU's winning streak came while playing in the top-ranked conference in the nation. Nebraska hasn’t lost a match since Oct. 24. In that streak, the Huskers have defeated three ranked teams, including No. 7 Penn State. It’s the longest winning streak for the program since 2011.

If the fifth-ranked Huskers (28-4) can push the winning streak to 14 with two more wins in Lexington, Kentucky, next weekend, they’ll have fulfilled their season-long goal of getting to the Final Four in Omaha. Nebraska will play No. 11 BYU in the regional semifinal Friday.

This season, Nebraska has players at new positions, and that helped. Amber Rolfzen is now a middle blocker, Kadie Rolfzen now a right-side hitter and Kelly Hunter the starting setter, but Nebraska has also gone from one of the youngest teams in the country in 2014 to a more veteran outfit this season.

The winning streak comes with satisfaction for Cook, but he’s not surprised, because this group goes about its business so well. He can’t remember the last bad practice. He always feels like the Huskers want to be there.

“I think part of it is they’re on a mission and I think we got a lot of experience last year,” Cook said. “I’m very pleased with the consistency we’ve played at.”

Serving is what Cook has said since last season will decide if the Huskers reach their goals in 2015, so Saturday was special to see. Nebraska got six ace serves from six different players, and didn’t let Wichita State consistently run what Cook said was one of the fastest attacks in the country.

The Huskers still didn’t do an awesome job on the Shockers’ standout middle blocker, Abbie Lehman, who had 10 kills on 15 attempts, but if Nebraska had not served like it did, she may have gotten more chances.

Wichita State coach Chris Lamb said Nebraska was the best serving team the Shockers played all year.

“The Huskers dominated serve and pass, and then just the firepower on the pins,” Lamb said.

The firepower came from a balanced attack led by Mikaela Foecke, who had 12 kills without an error for a .600 hitting percentage. She had 11 kills on her first 14 swings.

Wichita State didn’t have a right-side blocker who could match up with the hard-hitting, 6-foot-3 freshman from West Point, Iowa.

“I think about every set Kelly gave her was right on the money, so she was in a really good groove tonight. That’s why you see stats like that,” Cook said.

Kadie Rolfzen added 11 kills on .385 hitting, and Kelsey Fien had 10.

Nebraska had a much better start than when the Huskers lost the first set against Harvard on Friday.

“We kind of came out pretty dull last night, and tonight you could see we had a little more fire in our eyes and that we really wanted it,” Foecke said.

The end of the third set was for the feel-good stuff for two seniors who made big impacts earlier in their careers, but haven’t played as much this season. Meghan Haggerty came off the bench and got a kill on the first rally she was in.

Then Alicia Ostrander came in and got a kill. Have you ever seen about 3,000 people stand up and form an "O" with their arms? We have now. Nebraska fans love "Big O," the walk-on from Gordon.

This was the final match in Lincoln this season. Last year, just 6,705 fans attended the second-round NCAA match at the Devaney Center.

This year, the NU athletic department ramped up its marketing to let fans know you really can get volleyball tickets on occasion. A standing-room-only crowd of 8,132 was there Saturday.

The fans came because this team is fun to watch.

“This team has played very high-level volleyball, some of the highest-level volleyball since I’ve been here,” Cook said. “Like last week against Illinois and Penn State, was really high-level volleyball. I think our fans like that and appreciate the skill and how we play, and we play as a team. It’s hard not to follow this team and root for them.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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