Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Destination Unknown: Nebraska Volleyball Turns Attention To Spring

September 21, 2020

This story originally appeared in the August issue of Hail Varsity. Never miss an issue of the magazine with a subscription to Hail Varsity.


Nebraska volleyball knew its destination. The team knew from the moment Wisconsin swept it out of the NCAA Tournament and ended its 2019 season. The Huskers knew from the moment Coach John Cook drew a football field on a whiteboard in the locker room that night in Madison and pointed to the 50-yard line. That’s where the Huskers were, and they knew where they wanted to be.

“We’ve got another year,” Cook said. “Goal is to get to Omaha.”

The 2019 and 2020 seasons always felt like a two- season arc for Nebraska. The 2019 roster—without a single senior but all the young talent in the world— appeared to be building toward something bigger. With each of its starters from the previous season returning, 2020 felt like the one.

“This group has so much potential,” junior setter Nicklin Hames said. “This group has worked hard and, especially after last season, we didn’t accomplish what we wanted. Everyone just has this different go- getter mentality and the mentality that we’re going to let go of last year.

“We’re going to make this year great.”

John S. Peterson
John Cook coaching for Nebraska.

The NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship was scheduled to be played in Omaha this December. Serendipity, you might call it. A team on the latter half of its arc, Nebraska felt ready to take the 2020 season by storm. The goal to play for it all in front of an expected home crowd an hour up the road from the Devaney Center in Lincoln. Omaha last hosted the championship in 2015.

Nebraska won that one with the CenturyLink Center filled to the brim in red. Five years later and another national championship to boot—that one coming in Kansas City in 2017—the Huskers were ready to do it in front of the home crowd again.

The key words being “was” and “were.”

The Big Ten Conference made the decision on Tuesday, Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports. By Thursday, Aug. 13, just eight days after Nebraska started fall practice, the NCAA called the championships off.

“We cannot, at this point, have fall NCAA championships,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said, announcing that fall championships (with FBS football as the exception) were canceled. You need at least half of the programs playing any given sport to have a legitimate championship. With the Big Ten and Pac-12 out, plus plenty of others, the numbers just weren’t there.

Emmert mentioned spring. That’s where the NCAA would turn its attention, even as uncertainty remained. Three of the Power 5 conferences are still moving forward with fall sports schedules at the time of publication—the Big 12, SEC and ACC—but that’s subject to change at any moment.

What was once very clear for a team like Nebraska has now become uncertain. What now?

***
Nebraska started fall practice on Wednesday, Aug. 5. The team had hoped to have some clarity on the season by that point, but nothing came. By the time the Big Ten made its announcement and the NCAA made its own, the Huskers were four practices into preseason preparation. Could they continue? Should they continue?

“If we get a shot at having a championship, we’ll work backwards from there with our calendar and what the rules will allow us to do.”
– John Cook

“We don’t know,” Cook said. “If we get a shot at having a championship, we’ll work backwards from there with our calendar and what the rules will allow us to do. We could practice right now, but I’m anticipating if we have a spring season we have to manage their year. We’ve got to give them breaks. Potentially, if we have to go spring season, they may not have a break except for a couple of weeks at Christmas.

“So, we’re going to take our break now. I think men’s basketball, for example, is off right now. Let them go home, be with their family, whatever, and then we’ll make a plan once we have more info.”

The lack of knowing is probably the most difficult part right now, especially for a team like Nebraska. Cook will tell you it’s “really, really hard,” especially because the Huskers have always been a goal- oriented team. And we’re not just talking little goals. We’re talking those big goals, like the ones that get you from the 50-yard line to the end zone and the ones that take you the last 29 feet of Mount Everest. Nebraska has always set its sights high.

The Huskers also set team slogans before every season. It’s bigger than just coming up with the idea, too. It’s about those goals behind the slogan and how every member of the team will give toward the success of it. It’s a process, but one that’s become part of a Nebraska volleyball season as much as anything else. Fans eagerly await the announcement each year.

The 2019 season had two slogans: “29,029,” a nod to that Mount Everest goal, and “To Be Continued.” Both in honor of what wasn’t accomplished in 2018, what Nebraska wanted going forward and the work that needed to be done to get there. The 2019 team felt it had fallen short in the season before, so a new season brought new opportunity.

Eric Francis
Kenzie Knuckles celebrates with Nebraska.

The 2020 team has yet to officially unveil its new slogan. “I think that through all of this, we’ve learned that our goals are going to have to be smaller,” sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles said. “I haven’t really noticed a huge change, but I noticed that when Coach does tell us that we have to take it day-by- day, learn those small goals that we’re going to work on day by day. I think I noticed that basically, the team looks into those smaller things and it keeps us more optimistic rather than setting these long-term goals that we aren’t really sure are going to happen or we’re going to be able to achieve.”

That mentality is exactly what Cook and his staff want from the team. Take it day-by-day. Focus on each new day as it comes. Don’t get too far ahead because there’s no guarantee what tomorrow or next week might bring.

“There was a lot of emphasis on stay in the moment, focus on that day and we can’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow or what decisions are being made,” Cook said. “They handled it really well. We talk about that all the time and it just gave them the chance to really embrace that.”

***
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things about sports. For many of Nebraska’s athletes, it allowed more time at home and more time to reflect. Days that were once packed to the brim with schedules were traded for days with no plans.

That kind of time unveils a lot of things for anyone. Cook—who normally would have spent his summer at camps—spent time in Idaho. Nebraska’s coaches had been told to work from home and to do everything remotely, but Cook couldn’t do it. If he was going to be in Lincoln, he wanted to be with his team.

Idaho, as a result, was a necessary escape. It was one that let him get away even if he knew there was somewhere else he should be. His mind never got too far from his team as a result.

“The thing I learned about myself is that I miss coaching, and it’s hard not being able to work and work on things and build a team,” he said. “That was … I had to get out of here. I couldn’t take it anymore. What I’ve learned about those guys is that everybody’s responded just a little bit differently. I think there’s lots to be learned for them on how important structure is and having people around to support you when you don’t have that. I see the result of that and it’s not good.

“Here’s the bottom line. It’s a lot easier to work out with people that are as good as you or better than you that are going to push you as opposed to being by yourself. It’s hard to get better by yourself.”

For Hames, that routine is key. She’s grown up surrounded by structure. Her parents are not only former volleyball players and coaches themselves, but they also own a volleyball gym in Tennessee. A week off may have sounded nice as first, but that didn’t last long. Too much free time is not what Hames wants. She’d rather be with her team in the gym, with a schedule and expectations in hand.

Knuckles too.

“The team looks into those smaller things and it keeps us more optimistic rather than setting these long-term goals that we aren’t really sure are going to happen or we’re going to be able to
achieve.”
– sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles

“I think just growing up playing volleyball nonstop, we’re always on this constant schedule,” she said. “We’re always told where we’re going to go and when we need to be there, and what’s going to happen and what we’re looking forward to.”

Being away from Nebraska highlighted something else for Hames and Knuckles. They love being part of a team. Even more, they love being part of this Nebraska team. They love spending time together. They’re goofy and full of ambition.

Hard working, too. That’s what Hames saw more than ever over the last few months. Even during uncertainty, her teammates never quit.

“I will just say how tough we are, and how tough everyone is on this team,” Hames said. “I’m just proud that I get to be their teammate and I get to work next to them every day.”

***
Growth often comes from the biggest changes and challenges. If there’s any sort of bright spot in the uncertainty, it’s that the Nebraska volleyball team hasn’t stopped. Has it been hard? Of course. While the Huskers were able to have a normal summer from a preparation standpoint, there was plenty that wasn’t normal. One, for example, was that there were no camps. Cook, who usually gets to see his team during the summer thanks to those camps, was left to adjust. He leaned heavily on his staff, like athletic trainer Jolene Emricson, to keep the ship moving in the right direction.

Eric Francis
Lexi Sun, Nicklin Hames and Kenzie Knuckles on the court for Nebraska.

Nebraska now has four seniors on its roster— outside hitters Lexi Sun and Jazz Sweet, middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and libero Hayley Densberger—and returns both 2019 captains in Stivrins and Hames. The team also added three freshmen in setter Anni Evans, libero Keonilei Akana and middle blocker Kalynn Meyer. The talent returning mixed with the talent arriving has already elevated Nebraska. If the Huskers ended the 2019 season on the 50-yard line, they’ve already moved a little closer to the end zone.

“Based on the first four days (of practice), I think we’ve progressed,” Cook said. “Our three freshmen have upgraded our gym based on the first four days of practice I saw. Our team is a year older, a year wiser, a year more comfortable, a year more confident. They’ve been working all year. They were here and worked all summer, made great decisions on staying safe. Another thing that I look for is what do our seniors do in our Performance Index testing? Lexi went up over 300 points, Lauren broke records for her. Those two are obviously on a mission. We had a couple of other players do really well in testing even though it was difficult because the spring was shut down.

“Where we started (when the players returned) was a little lower than the normal starting spot, but they really worked hard this summer. That’s all I can go by.”

That’s all anyone can go by right now. The NCAA is working with the College Commissioners Association—which is comprised of 32 commissioners at the Division I level— to figure out the next steps, but the answer will likely take some time. It may even change again after its provided.

What hasn’t changed is what Nebraska has wanted for itself. From the moment the Huskers sat in the locker room last December, they knew where they were and where they needed to go. Nebraska volleyball has always known its destination.

The question now is just how long it will take to get there.

John S. Peterson
Nebraska volleyball and Coach John Cook before a match at the Devaney Center.

 

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