After 13 long months, the Big Ten volleyball season has almost arrived. The Huskers will begin their season at Indiana on Jan. 22.
Junior setter and team captain Nicklin Hames said on Wednesday that the hardest part of the extended offseason was not knowing when their next match was going to be.
“It’s hard to train every day and not know when you’re going to play again,” Hames said. “But I thought our team did a really good job of coming in everyday and having a growth mindset and just getting better that day.”
On Dec. 29, the Big Ten released its winter/spring schedule, giving all of its teams a tangible finish line and something to work towards. Coach John Cook said practice participation had been somewhat hit and miss with all the challenges living during a pandemic presents, but it’s been better the last couple of weeks.
“We’ve been doing well,” Cook said. “I think this is day 12 today, but we’ve kind of had to work into it more than we would in the summer just because they were off for two weeks at Christmas. It’s just been a little different schedule than what we’re used to.”
The Huskers have gone through workout and training periods in the summer, fall and now winter with the start of the season getting pushed back to late January, but Cook said he’s excited about what he’s seen from his veteran group.
“It’s been a little bit slower process in building the team just because of all the breaks and all the interruptions, but at times this group has shown they can play at a really high level,” Cook said. “Now we’re trying to get that to be consistent. I think that’s one of the hardest things and maybe the hardest thing if you talk to coaches and other teams is, again, there are a lot of interruptions all the time and so trying to get a consistent performance level, and the other thing is trying to get in a routine. We’re trying to get in a routine, and of course that changes. Last week it was different to this week it’s different because the Big Ten is now more involved. But I’m excited because I think this team is a year older, it’s a year wiser, I think our leadership on our team and the seniors have set great tone of working to improve every day.”
Without any games to play, the Huskers stayed in the gym as much as possible, and the one upside to an extended offseason was the opportunity to keep getting better on the court and in the film room.
“They come in wanting to get better, wanting to work on things, not leaving the gym until they get it,” Cook said. “We’ve had a lot of time to watch more video, so there’s been a lot of great learning going on. At times we’re showing things at a very high level. We haven’t played in 13 months, so I get anxious because we haven’t played. That’s our real test is when we play. That’s when we’re going to find out how much of this has transferred and we’ve got to get through some nerves. This group has done a really, really good job and again, I’m going to give our captains and seniors a ton of credit for holding it all together.”
The Huskers will enter the season ranked fifth in the country according to the preseason AVCA Coaches Poll. Cook said he doesn’t put any stock into that ranking.
“It’s where we finished last year,” Cook said. “All I know is the last two times we were ranked fifth we won national championships.”
Cook doesn’t talk about rankings with his team, but he does set goals. Hames said that rather than avoiding the elephant in the room, the players embrace talking about the possibility of playing in the Final Four in their own backyard with Omaha set to host this season.
“It’s always a goal to get to Omaha when Omaha’s hosting,” Cook said. “I’m still not sure it’s 100%, but I think we’re pretty close to Omaha hosting, and maybe the whole thing, I’ve heard. Lot’s going on. We know it’s close, but there’s a long road ahead of us right now before we start worrying about that.”
That long road includes 20 Bg Ten matches without the ramp-up period of a nonconference slate. The Huskers return all of their starters, but they do have four new players on the roster and and will likely be working at least a couple of them into the rotation.
“Better be good first point because there’s going to be a bigger sense of urgency and every point is worth more now because we don’t have a month to prepare to get to the Big Ten season,” Cook said. “You’ve got to be good out of the gate — that’s the most important thing — and you have to win close matches … The NCAA Tournament is a reduced field and they’re going to take less teams. Every point is going to be big.”
Cook wasn’t ready to reveal the team slogan for the 2020-21 season just yet, but he did call it “epic” and encouraged fans to keep an eye on the program’s social media channels.
“It’s going to be a major Hollywood production,” Cook said. “I know they’re in quarantine out there in Hollywood, but we’re going to Hollywood it up here.”