LINCOLN, Neb. – The Huskers accomplished their first major goal for this season by winning the Big Ten, but now it’s time to move on to the second – winning their second-straight national championship. Coach John Cook said there is a buzz around the program.
“The Huskers had a good week,” Cook said. “I think they’re fired up. Husker Nation is fired up. I bought all the student tickets up so the students can go free, so they should be fired up. So let’s get started.”
Top-seeded Nebraska kicks off its NCAA Tournament run on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Devaney Center against New Hampshire, the 21-10 champion from the American East. Cook said the Wildcats remind him a bit of some of the other teams the Huskers have played in the early rounds of the tournament.
“I think they fit into the Sacred Heart, Harvard, the east-coast, smaller-school, some really nice players, they do some really creative things,” Cook said. “They’re just going to be not as big and physical as what we’re used to going against in the Big Ten. They beat Rutgers pretty easily and beat Boston College.”
The Huskers are well aware of what New Hampshire can do, but junior setter Kelly Hunter said regardless of opponent they are more concerned with themselves.
“They’re pretty scrappy,” Hunter said. “They have a middle that plays all the way around and passes, which you don’t usually see, so we’re going to see some stuff that we’ve never seen before. But mostly, no matter what, no matter who we’re playing, whether they’re top four or whoever, we always focus on our side first. We’ve been working a lot on our sideout and our defense.”
Nebraska has to turn the page from the grind of the Big Ten and prepare for a new challenge, and Cook said he senses a more relaxed feel with the conference title finally under their belts.
“It feels like a new season, and for us, I feel like we survived the Big Ten, we accomplished that goal,” Cook said. “That was weighing very heavily on our whole program, our team, trying to get that done. It came down to the very last match in the Big Ten. That’s how tight it was and how competitive it was. Trying to win that, you felt like you were constantly climbing the mountain, so that felt like a big relief.
“This feels like now we’re getting ready to run a 400 meter race. The first match is against New Hampshire; from now, it’s less than three weeks so it’s more of a sprint and we want to try to get out of the gate good and run the corner strong and really finish strong here. It feels like it’s a new season and I’m hoping we’re going to have kind of a new, second burst of energy and excitement. It certainly doesn’t feel like the pressure of trying to win the Big Ten. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and gone through as a coach, the 10 weeks of trying to win the Big Ten with the level of play this year.”
Senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes confirmed Cook’s thoughts.
“I think it’s business as usual,” Wong-Orantes said. “I can’t remember who said it but at our meeting after the selection show, it’s kind of like a new season going into the tournament. Everything is done before coming into it. We won the Big Ten, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Now everyone’s going for the national championship. We’ve just got to take it one point at a time, one game at a time.”
The Huskers are the reigning champs, but Cook said he has tried to avoid looking back at last year other than some time spent reflecting on what allowed them to take home the title last season. He wants his team to be the hunters rather than the hunted. Last year’s goal heading into the tournament was “Destination Omaha,” making it to the Final Four in their own backyard. This year, the bar has been raised and the goal is to win a second straight national championship, something Nebraska has not yet done.
“The whole motivation has been ‘OK, you guys have a chance to do something nobody else has ever done here for Nebraska volleyball,’ so that’s what we’re going after,” Cook said. “We’re not trying to protect or defend our championship. It’s ‘we’re going to try to do something that’s never been done before, so that’s mentally how we’re approaching it. Hopefully we’ll have an attack mentality, we’ll be going for it, we won’t be trying to protect. It felt like in the Big Ten the last few weeks we were protecting, ‘let’s don’t mess this up, we have a one-game lead,’ and we played some tight volleyball down the stretch.”
As the top overall seed, as long as they keep winning the Huskers will get to host until the Final Four, something for which Cook said he is grateful.
“To travel this time of year… Chicago’s got ice today,” Cook said. “It’s nice to be at home. We’ve played three out of our last four Big Ten [matches] on the road, so that was grinding on us as well.”
Hunter said she is glad that the Huskers earned the right to stay at home, not only for themselves but for the fans as well.
“We love our crowd, we love our facilities so this being the first year the top four seeds get to host, it was really important for us to play well all season long, not just in the Big Ten, in the preseason [nonconference] and we had some tough teams in the preseason,” Hunter said. “Just for us playing at home, giving our fans another chance to see us, it mean a lot just because they support us so much so we kind of wanted to do it for them a little bit too.”
As Cook said above, he paid for all 175 tickets allotted for Nebraska students so that the students wouldn’t have to pay extra to attend the game and cheer on the Huskers.
“I wrote a check for 175 tickets for the student section,” Cook said. “I really appreciate our students and we’re trying to build a great student section here. I want our students to feel like they can come here – they already had to buy season tickets to be in here so I don’t want money to be an [obstacle] … And the other real reason is Penn State, Texas, they all – the coaches don’t buy them, the school buys them and gives away free tickets. We’re not doing that here so fine, I have no problem doing that.
“My goal is to have the best student section in the country at some point. We have to build it. Our students are new to this still, relatively new because we really didn’t have a student section at the Coliseum and they do a great job and we’re continuing to work to try to get them all together, that’s the other big goal. I want to make a statement, and by me doing this it makes a statement to our fans, our administration that we really value our students and I want them to experience everything they’re doing here. I asked last year if I could do it and I was told no. This year they said yes.”
Video review and coaches’ challenges will not be available during the tournament according to NCAA rules. Cook said the other coaches in Nebraska’s regional all want to use it and they petitioned the NCAA Championship Committee, but their request was denied. Since not all of the host sites have review capability, none of the sites will get to use it. Cook said the report from the Big Ten on challenge success rate this season – a sample size of more than 700 reviews – showed that 40 percent of calls challenged were overturned.
“To me, it’s mind-boggling why we haven’t mandated this in,” Cook said. “It’s not that expensive.”
Friday’s game is set to begin at either 7 p.m. or 30 minutes following the conclusion of Wichita State and TCU. The match will be televised locally on NET and will be available on BTN2Go.
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.