LINCOLN — Mikaela Foecke has celebrated 119 wins in her Nebraska career. Among them are two victories that clinched NCAA titles, two more that have won Big Ten championships, and dozens in which the Huskers have needed her howitzer of a right arm to hit a volleyball like Batman smacks one of the Joker’s goons.
Bam! Pow! Thwack!
So would it surprise you to know that one of her clearest memories in a star-studded career came during a loss? When Nebraska, ranked No. 3 early in her freshman year, was in the process of being upset at home by No. 9 Minnesota, Foecke didn’t look at the scoreboard. She looked at the antenna at the edge of the net, trembling from the din of more than 8,000 fans at the Devaney Center.
“It got so loud that I couldn’t hear anyone,” Foecke said. "I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I love this place. I can’t believe I’m here.’”
Can you believe it’s almost time for her to go? If Nebraska (24-6), seeded No. 7 in Foecke’s final NCAA tournament, wins its 7 p.m. first round match Friday against Hofstra (25-7), then the Huskers will have given their senior outside hitter one more December. The month when, from the very start of her career, she’s owned every big stage and risen to every moment.
December, in Nebraska, is MFT. Mikaela Foecke Time. The Huskers are 16-1 in the month in her career, and in each of her first three seasons Foecke has propelled NU to a mid-December final four. It's the best run in the history of a program where postseason excellence is the expectation.
"She’s just a warrior, and I think she thinks she can take over the match when we need it,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. "I’m seeing her, like, when we need an ace, she really hits a tough serve. When we need a big kill, she’s being able to kill it. A big block. She’s big time.”
One the cusp of one last December, Foecke is ending her career at the peak of her powers with a career-best 3.72 kills per set and a career-high .304 hitting percentage that nearly assures her of becoming a first-team All-American for the first time in her career and puts her in line to join the program’s all-time greats.
She's 17 kills shy of tying Jordan Larson for the No. 5 spot on the school’s all-time record list, and if the Huskers advance to regional play next weekend, there’s a good chance she could reach Lisa Reitsma’s No. 3 mark of 1,633 kills.
"When you come here you’re looking to win national championships, you’re looking to win games, and you’re looking to improve yourself on the court, off the court, in the classroom,” Foecke said. "When I came here I knew those were going to be the expectations."
Foecke let it be known early she wasn’t shy of the highest standards. A goal-oriented striver, she called Cook before arriving on campus as the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruit in 2015 and told her new coach she was going to help the team make its first final four in seven years as a freshman.
It was the naive boast of a kid who didn’t know what she didn’t know, Foecke said this week. Who didn’t realize a high school middle blocker wasn’t supposed to have the temerity to go through two quick position changes and end her freshman year as the final four’s most outstanding player after putting up 19 kills in the NCAA championship match against Texas.
Two years later, Foecke, no longer an unknown quantity, was equally dominant in another championship match against Florida with 20 kills. In five final four matches, Foecke has hit .301 and averaged 4.3 kills per set.
"She just has this inner confidence and inner belief in herself, and she’s always had it,” NU senior Brooke Smith said. "Even as a freshman. And I think that’s something everyone is chasing.”
How does a player who can soar over Big Ten blockers stay so grounded? Teammates say there is no Husker more committed to being herself than Foecke, who in some ways is still the admittedly “awkward” freshman who never shucked her cowboy boots after leaving her small hometown of West Point, Iowa, cracks up teammates with unintentional non sequiturs, and still sometimes forgets her own strength.
In Nebraska’s five-set comeback win over Creighton in September, Foecke celebrated one of Capri Davis’ kills so hard she shoved the freshman to the ground, sending everyone scurrying back to their positions without looking over to the bench lest Cook’s gaze turn them all into pillars of salt.
"Mikaela is like the goofiest person I have ever met in my whole life,” NU co-captain Kenzie Maloney said. "But not on purpose. She doesn’t try to be goofy and make people laugh. That’s just her thing. That’s just how she is. Just out there and doesn’t care what people think, and she’s just so completely herself. We love her for it."
West Point (population 900) was an unlikely place to grow a volleyball star. As a high school senior, the only child of Brian and Kathleen Foecke traveled two hours each way to Cedar Rapids to be groomed as an outside hitter after spending her high school career as a middle blocker. Mikaela did the driving on the way there, then did homework on the way home while a parent took over the wheel.
Described by more than one teammate as “Team Mom,” Foecke still checks in to make sure teammates are doing well in class. An animal science major, Foecke has earned Academic All-Big Ten honors twice, and while her palms don’t sweat on the volleyball court, her fingers may tremble a bit in February when she finds out if she’ll be accepted into Iowa State’s prestigious veterinary school.
"I don’t think there’s a place in her life where she doesn’t give 100 percent, and I think that’s so rare because you can find great athletes who maybe struggle in school or struggle connecting with teammates,” Smith said. "But, Mikaela encompasses this well-rounded, amazing friend, teammate, student, athlete. I think that takes a lot of focus and a lot of determination, and I don’t know how she does it sometimes."
That’s not to say all the answers come easy. This spring, Foecke and Maloney were named captains of a rebuilding team that would have seven new members. They tried to draw on the lessons of past captains like Kelly Hunter, and create a nurturing, welcoming environment to make their new teammates feel comfortable.
But the 2018 Huskers had a different set of challenges. Despite starting four freshmen in the season opener, Nebraska was still given the No. 2 preseason ranking, and Foecke said the team wasn’t ready for such expectations.
And while Hunter’s leadership style worked well with a veteran unit who knew the NU program inside and out, this year’s team required more concrete instruction. In five October losses, the Huskers were committing uncharacteristic mistakes — serving errors, net violations, spraying shots out of bounds or into the block.
Nebraska needed their captain, who can swing without conscience, to make that confidence rub off on everyone else. Foecke and Maloney gathered the team and reminded them of the importance of playing without fear. They urged teammates to look at their narrow defeats to top-10 teams Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Nebraska was playing well below its potential and still putting up a fight.
"She just kept saying, ‘You guys, I believe in us so much,’” freshman setter Nicklin Hames said. "Just her belief in our team and belief in that we’re a good team and we can beat these good teams, I think that just really pushed us through that month.”
Eight straight wins later, Nebraska is playing its best volleyball of the season on December’s doorstep with Foecke hitting .358 over the winning streak. But NU again will need her best to navigate the toughest NCAA tournament draw in her career.
Two wins this weekend would likely send the Huskers to Minneapolis where they may have to beat Big Ten champion Minnesota on its home court to earn an unprecedented fourth straight trip to the final four.
It’s sure to be another December pressure cooker, one that by now Foecke has accepted as normal.
When the antenna is shaking and all eyes turn to her, she’ll look around the circle of teammates and give thanks for one more chance to swing with it all on the line.
“When everything is going right, you look at it and you’re like ‘Wow, this is awesome,’” Foecke said. "'I’m with some of my best friends playing a game that I absolutely love.’ You cherish every moment even more.”