The year is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for everyone to write their year-in-review stories. We’ve been doing that all week here at Hail Varsity with reflections on the best play, best player, best win and more to come.
I figured I'd use this space to look back at my own year on the beat of Nebraska athletics. I covered somewhere in the area of 80 games, and though there were some ups and downs, 2018 treated the Huskers pretty well.
Here at Hail Varsity, it’s all hands on deck for football, though Derek Peterson does a great job as our primary beat guy. The Huskers went 4-8 for the second straight year, so that wasn’t great. Neither was the 0-6 start.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Husker fan who didn’t come away from the season excited about next year. The reasons for that include Scott Frost’s offense and his staff’s overall coaching, a veteran star in JD Spielman, young playmakers like Adrian Martinez and Maurice Washington and a more aggressive mindset on defense.
All season long, my day-after post was about highlighting some of the best plays the Huskers made during the game. I figured with the way Frost’s offense worked, I’d have plenty to choose from every week. That wasn’t necessarily the case early in the season, but once the Huskers started to settle in and grow comfortable in the scheme, we started to see those playmakers do their thing and it was a lot of fun to look back on the next day.
Martinez was special as a freshman, and I can’t wait to see how he develops over the next few years. Nebraska hasn’t turned the corner from a win-loss standpoint yet, but the team was fun and that’s a great start for a fan base desperate to see winning football again.
That being said, my primary beats are volleyball and basketball, and 2018 was a great year for those programs as well.
John Cook followed up one of his best coaching jobs — taking a team that lost four senior starters including the Rolfzen twins and Justine Wong-Orantes to a national title — with arguably an even better job.
The Huskers returned just four starters — including just two seniors — from that title team and had to replace one of the best setters to come through the program in Kelly Hunter with a true freshman. Nebraska started another true freshman at the second middle blocker spot and had two more true freshmen playing roles off the bench. In total, 11 of the 15 players on the roster were underclassmen.
Even so, the Huskers made it to the national championship, coming up just short of their third title in four years. Even more impressive is that the Huskers managed to fall into a rut with five losses to top-10 teams int he span of seven matches yet came out the other side intact and used that experience to improve, and at the end of the season the Huskers out-lasted all those top-10 teams that beat them during the regular season.
The Huskers went 29-7 (15-5 in the Big Ten) this season including 11-7 against top-25 teams.
Nebraska is losing two program legends in Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, and finding someone to replace Foecke’s production as the team’s go-to hitter is the most pressing task for Cook heading into the offseason, but they bring back almost everyone else and should be right back in the mix for a conference and national title next season led by setter Nicklin Hames, middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Lexi Sun.
Last (but certainly not least if you know me at all) is basketball. Derek does a great job covering the women’s team (and 2018 included an NCAA Tournament appearance for Amy Williams’ crew), but my beat is the men’s team and 2018 was the best year by far for that program since I’ve been covering it.
After three straight below-.500 seasons, Nebraska put together a 22-11 campaign in 2017-18 that included a 12-6 mark in the 2018 part of that season. The season sputtered out with losses in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and NIT, but that stretch also included one of the top two or three wins since I’ve been covering the program — a 72-52 win against a Michigan team that went on the finish as the national runner-up.
The Huskers failed to take advantage of the few opportunities they had for resume-building wins and missed out on the Big Dance as a result, but that team built the foundation for what the Huskers are doing this year.
Nebraska is 10-2 this season and has the look — and metrics — of a tournament team. The schedule in 2019 should offer more opportunities to build that resume than 2018 did as well as the Big Ten is much stronger this year than last.
Glynn Watson Jr. is having a bounce-back season, James Palmer Jr. has been red-hot over his last few games and Isaac Copeland Jr. has developed into the team’s most consistent performer. The defense — led by Isaiah Roby — has been elite and the offense has been much better than last season, and that combination should be enough for a top-five finish in the Big Ten, which should also mean an NCAA Tournament berth this season.
In total, the Huskers are 22-8 in 2018 with one game remaining (albeit it against a Division II team in Southwest Minnesota State). Few of those games have come against top-25 teams (The Huskers lost to Purdue and Ohio State in January; Nebraska split two games against Michigan last season; Texas Tech beat Nebraska as an unranked team and has climbed into the top 15 since; Nebraska beat Clemson while it was ranked but the Tigers have fallen out since), but for a team with 41 total wins in a three-year span, winning is important and a big step forward.
This year was a pretty good one for Nebraska athletics, but all signs point to 2019 being even better.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.