Wednesday is the last of a 19-day layoff between matches for the Nebraska volleyball team. Coach John Cook and his team have had to deal with gaps in their schedule throughout the season, but this is the longest the Huskers have gone without competing against someone else.
That break will end on Thursday as the Huskers open their NCAA Tournament run against Texas State in the second round.
“It’s such a different energy and feeling when you’re playing as opposed to coming in and practicing, but I think that our team has done a really good job of staying focused and staying ready,” senior Lauren Stivrins said. “But definitely just getting out on the court and competing is something that we have really missed and something that I’m really looking forward to.”
Stivrins said maintaining focus was the toughest part of the last few weeks.
“I think the toughest part is just trying to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize,” Stivrins said. “We knew that the tournament was coming, but it’s real and it’s here now. We haven’t played a game in so long, so just trying to keep that same mentality each day and making sure that we’re getting in and getting better. I think that’s been the toughest part.”
Cook loves a good training block as much as any coach, but this last stretch was a bit much even for him.
“It’s not something that I would say we need to do every year,” Cook said. “I do a lot of trying to figure out what is the best for us every day, how do we stay sharp, how do we rest them? When you’re not playing for 19 days it’s hard to have something to shoot for. That’s a long ways out. I’ve just tried to be really creative and manage these guys and keep them sharp. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that, but I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job and I think they’ve done an awesome job coming to the practices and weights and really working hard and being focused. It’s really hard to do, especially for that age group, and I think our team’s done an amazing job of it.
“I’ve been really, really happy and proud of them for the business side and how they’ve approached everything. I’ll give credit to our seniors; they’ve been here before, they know what it takes and they’ve done a really good job of I think keeping everybody kind of on the same page and moving in the right direction.”
Cook, like most coaches, is a big fan of having a routine. However, two-and-a-half weeks of intense, game-week-style practices likely would have been a good way to burn his team out before they got to the tournament. So he altered the way they did things, giving the team some time off from practice once they learned Nebraska’s season-ending matches against Penn State were canceled before getting back at it last week.
“For us, we spent more time in the weight room,” Cook said. “We lifted more because we’re not playing matches, so we’re trying to keep them sharp and healthy. Second thing is we tried to build in some breaks because I think if you’re grinding six days over 19 days and you’re not playing matches, it’s really tough. We changed some drills that we normally do to make it more competitive and there was a lot of they had to be in there to get a certain goal before they could get out of the drill. As a coach, they responded really well to that. They could have said ‘Oh, this is too hard’ or ‘I’m not going to be able to do this’ or ‘Are you kidding me?’ They just embraced every challenge we threw, so we threw a lot of challenges at them … They did great with it.”
Cook often says the competition the Huskers face in practice is as good as what they see on match days, and he believes that was the case over the last week-and-a-half.
“So the creative side is we came up with some new ways of how we were training and scoring and getting them to compete and perform at a high level, probably a higher level than what we’ll need in this tournament,” Cook continued. “But we had to try, somehow, to get them to stay at a high level or go to another place.”
After going hard in their last few practices in Lincoln, the Huskers traveled to Omaha on Monday night and spent Tuesday “hanging out” while they went through their testing and awaited the go-ahead to practice on Wednesday. Cook said they planned to “keep it loose,” with a zoo visit, game time and other team activities on Tuesday night.
— Husker Volleyball (@Huskervball) April 14, 2021
Through everything the last few weeks, and all season, Stivrins said the Huskers have done a good job of sticking together, and the coaching staff has made sure to keep the team’s goals top of mind in everything they’ve done.
“We’re always together and we’re always talking about what our goals are and stuff like that,” Stivrins said. “I think that just coming into practice every day and making sure that we have a similar goal and a similar focus. Our coaches are really good about writing down — each week we have a focus for ourselves and then coach, every practice, goes through what our goals are as a team and kind of lays those out. I don’t think there’s ever a chance for miscommunication as far as what needs to be done. I think we’re very good about that and then staying motivated, I think that comes naturally for all of us.
“I think this team’s put in so much work so I think we’re ready for this and we prepared well and I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Texas State beat Utah State in the first round on Wednesday, the Bobcats’ nation-leading 39th match of the 2020-21 season. Texas State (31-8) won 25-21, 25-16, 20-25, 25-22 while hitting .238 and holding Utah Valley to .154. Caitlin Buettner led the Bobcats with 15 kills on .226 hitting, Tyeranee Scott added 14 kills on .591 hitting and five blocks and Janell Fitzgerald chipped in 13 kills on .162 hitting.
First serve for Nebraska and Texas State is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. CT on WatchESPN.
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.