Making a radar gun light up by the way you smack around a volleyball, and having sleepy camp coaches notice you, isn’t indication alone of future success as a college volleyball player.
A young Mikaela Foecke, making her way through the Midwest on the volleyball camp circuit, was somebody the Nebraska coaches wanted to keep an eye on, though.
Nebraska coach John Cook saw how hard Foecke played with her club team, and how great of a teammate she was.
Foecke ended up being an outstanding high school player. Now she’s making a considerable impact at the college level as a freshman outside hitter for the Huskers, the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Foecke first came to a Husker volleyball camp before her freshman year of high school. One of the contests was to see at what speed a player could send the ball while hitting against no blockers.
“I think she was 58 or 59 (miles per hour),” said Cook of Foecke. “Nancy Metcalf, we had her do it a few times, and she was in the high-50s. Hannah Werth would get up in the mid-50s.
“(Foecke) hits the ball as hard as anybody we’ve had.”
After Cook saw Foecke again as a sophomore, he offered her a scholarship. She committed that year.
Getting a chance to play for the Huskers was special. Her first memory of Nebraska was watching Jordan Larson playing for the Huskers in the NCAA Final Four in 2008.
“That was when volleyball was starting to get big everywhere, and it was on TV,” Foecke said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to be just like her.’ Ever since, I’ve really loved Nebraska.”
Foecke was a middle blocker all of her high school career, but Cook saw her as an outside or right-side hitter because of how she moved and how great her arm was.
For Foecke, it was exciting that a college coach saw more potential in her at a different position, one where she could potentially play in all six rotations, unlike most college middles.
The goal is for Foecke to be a six-rotation player next season, after she’s been able to develop her ball-handling skills during the beach volleyball season.
Foecke is from the tiny southeast Iowa town of West Point, population of about 900. She graduated from Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Fort Madison, where there were 26 in her class.
In her final high school season, Foecke had 812 kills, 270 digs and 170 ace serves while leading her school to a 48-4 record and the school’s first state championship in any sport. She had a ridiculous 37 kills in the state semifinal match. She had a .617 hitting percentage for the season.
Foecke was the nation’s No. 2 recruit, and won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award for volleyball. The latter came with a trip to the ESPY Awards. That's where Foecke got to see Steph Curry, soccer star Alex Morgan and, Foecke said, American Pharoah jockey Victor Espinoza, with the 6-foot-3 volleyball player pointing to her side to show where the 5-2 jockey would come up against her.
Hitting hard isn’t enough in college volleyball, especially now that opponents will make their game plans to slow down Foecke.
For the most part, Foecke has been able to show a veteranlike maturity. She doesn’t launch many balls high and wide, like some nervous freshmen.
Since switching from right-side to the more natural outside hitter spot five weeks ago, Foecke has a .294 hitting percentage. Against Georgia Tech, Foecke had 12 kills on 19 error-free attempts.
“She just doesn’t make bonehead errors,” Cook said. “She just manages the game really well, and when she gets a bad set, she keeps it in, where other hitters don’t always do that.”
Being low-error is something Foecke’s club volleyball team spent a lot of time on.
“They emphasized just being smart and placing shots, and knowing when you can swing aggressive, and when you have to throw in a tip and a roll shot,” Foecke said.
Last week, with a career-high 22 kills, Foecke helped NU upset then-No. 1 Penn State in a five-set match. Cook liked Foecke’s matchup, and told setter Kelly Hunter to keep getting her the ball. Foecke’s 57 attempts in the match were 22 more than the next Husker.
“She can just take over matches, just by her swing,” Nebraska’s Justine Wong-Orantes said. “If we’re having a tough time in a rotation, by her moving to the outside you can just throw up a high ball to her, and she just has that powerful swing. If we need a point, we can turn a point just by going to Mikaela.”
Foecke’s 144 kills rank second on the team, just three fewer than Kadie Rolfzen’s total.
Foecke got a lesson last week on how challenging the Big Ten Conference can be, and what it’s like when teams start committing two blockers to you. One day after her big match against Penn State, Foecke had just four kills and a negative hitting percentage in a loss at Ohio State. Foecke still needs to understand how hard you have to play when playing back-to-back matches against good opponents, Cook said.