Nebraska volleyball fans will get both their first look at the new-look Huskers and an opportunity to look back at the 2017 championship season at the annual Red-White Scrimmage on Saturday.
The Huskers, with a roster including eight newcomers, will take the court at the Devaney Center in front of a sold-out crowd, and afterward Nebraska will play NET’s documentary, “Nebraska Volleyball: Culture of a Champion,” on the video board.
“To me it’s an appreciation day for Nebraska volleyball and our fans and the support that we get, and we never want to take that for granted,” Coach John Cook said.
— John Cook (@jcook2) August 17, 2018
The Huskers shared their appreciation for the fan support, but weren’t at all surprised by the sellout; it’s what they’ve come to expect from the Husker faithful.
“That’s crazy,” senior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “I don’t know if any other team in the country can say that, that they sold out a scrimmage preseason game. But that’s always what we expect when we have the fans that we do because they go all out for everything.”
“Volleyball’s just a huge part of what this state is,” Maloney continued. “To me, I’m a senior; it never gets old, though, coming out the first night and seeing all those people and hearing it, just the atmosphere will never get old and it’s something that I’ll always remember for the rest of my life.”
This year’s team features seven true newcomers who have yet to experience playing at the Devaney Center (senior Brooke Smith transferred back after spending last season at Kansas State), and the upperclassmen have tried to prepare the freshmen especially as best they can.
“They say it’s super exciting, super fun, especially for freshmen — it’s your first experience playing in Devaney and playing in front of all the fans — but I think this year it’s going to be even more fun because we’re sold out,” freshman setter Nicklin Hames said. “We have 8,000-plus people coming, so I think it’s going to be super intense and super fun. We’re excited.”
Saturday won’t be Hames’ first time in the Devaney Center on a game day, but watching from the sideline and suiting up are two very different things.
“It’s insane,” Hames said. “You sit there and you watch and you get goosebumps, you’re like ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ I can’t even imagine playing and having all those fans cheering for you and cheering against the other team. It’s going to be great and I’m super excited to have all hose people behind your back.”
Cook said he hasn’t yet decided on the format for the scrimmage in terms of roster make-up, but former Huskers Kadie and Amber Rolfzen are slated to participate. Texas transfer Lexi Sun’s status, on the other hand, is up in the air and Cook will determine what role she might play on Saturday with input from trainer Jolene Emricson. Sun has been limited in practice but everyone else should be full-go.
“I’m really excited about this group,” Maloney said. “Workouts in the summer, everyone worked super hard and I think it really has been showing on the court. We’re super young but I don’t think you can tell if you’re an outsider, you can’t tell that we haven’t been together at all. We play like we’ve been playing together for five years, so it looks really good right now.”
In fact, though she said they could definitely use the extra week of practice, Maloney thinks the Huskers would be ready to take on No. 7 Florida and No. 18 Oregon this weekend if they had to. Cook isn’t quite as convinced of that, but his goals for the scrimmage are simple.
“My goals are to have everybody play a significant amount and then have our crowd create a game-like atmosphere that we’re going to experience next week, because we’re going to have eight new players that haven’t experienced the Devaney before, so we’ve got to simulate it so we’re not going through that next weekend when we’re playing Florida and Oregon,” Cook said.
Typically, coaches like to downplay the importance of public scrimmages. That wasn’t the case for Cook on Friday, however.
“I’m putting a lot of stock into what happens tomorrow night because it’s going to give us a great indication of who’s going to perform when there’s a big crowd, lights are on, pressure, big match, TV, all that stuff,” Cook said. “Tomorrow’s going to be a great teaching moment for me and the coaches to learn who’s going to step up.”
The Huskers have a handful of starting spots up for grabs. The most prominent of those is the setter position which includes Hames, senior Brooke Smith and junior Mari Kurkova. According to Cook, the leader of that race “depends on the day.”
“Like I said, I’m putting a lot of stock in tomorrow night,” Cook said. “They’re all going to play, they’re all going to get a chance to show what they can do, and we’re going to find out who’s ready for primetime.”
Hames shared some of the things the setters are focusing on in practice as they battle it out for the top spot.
“I feel like you just have to execute your sets, you have to be loud, you have to be a vocal leader, you have to have a presence on the court and I think that’s the most important thing,” Hames said. “Setter is one of the most important positions, they run everything, they run the offense like a QB in football. So I think you really have to have a presence, you have to make your throws or make your sets, so I think that’s what we’ve really been focusing on is just executing the plays.”
Hames said the setters are getting a little extra practice time in as they make the adjustment to setting at Nebraska (or in Smith’s case, setting at Nebraska again).
“Usually the setters get here 30 minutes early and we just kind of work through the new techniques that none of us have really done before and then we set the boys — we have a lot of GA managers and that’s honestly helped a lot because you can’t miss them low,” Hames said. “Just being able to set them high, do the different sets, I think it’s helped a lot.”
Another spot up for grabs is the third middle blocker position. The Huskers currently have two true middles on the roster, but Cook has been working in practice to develop a third from a group of outside hitters. Cook said that sophomore southpaw Anezka Szabo, who played opposite hitter as a freshman, had the best stats at that spot this week and she was working with the middles during practice on Friday.
Finally, Cook needs a second outside hitter to emerge behind All-American senior Mikaela Foecke. With Sun limited, sophomore Sami Slaughter and freshman Capri Davis have a big opportunity in front of them at that spot.
First serve on Saturday is set for 3 p.m. with the 35-minute documentary to follow. Fans not at the scrimmage can catch the documentary’s debut on NET on Sunday at 5:30 p.m.
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.