COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two points better is one of John Cook’s many mantras. In matches like an NCAA semifinal, particularly one between Nebraska and Texas, that’s usually about the difference. Two points better, three times. That’s all it takes.
But not on Thursday. Not when one team has eight errors and the other has 21. You know which was which.
“To draw it up this way, I don’t think anyone expected it,” Texas Coach Jerritt Elliot said.
Almost nobody not wearing burnt orange, that is. Nebraska seemed loose the day before the match. The Huskers looked like the Huskers usually look. I overheard one volleyball writer who covers the sport nationally say Nebraska would have to collapse – that’s the edited version – to lose this tournament.
I was surprised to hear it because volleyball almost never feels that way. Not to me. It is a sport that is ruled by a handful of elite programs. But get those programs together, pit them against one another, and it always feels like almost anything can happen.
Texas, big and brash, came out swinging right away. The Longhorns celebrated every point in that first game like it was a humiliating dunk that would rack up millions of views on YouTube.
I wasn’t surprised by Nebraska’s calmness in response. The Huskers remained stoic in those early moments of that first set as the errors piled up. Nebraska had eight in the first set, as many as Texas would commit all match. On the outside, the Huskers seemed determined. It looked like point-by-point, another of Cook’s mantras, personified.
On the inside, however, Cook noticed something different.
“We wanted it too much and it caused us to do uncharacteristic things,” he said. “I was trying to get them to calm down. I thought maybe after we burned off a little adrenalin maybe we would settle down. But we were just all over the place.”
The match never really flipped from that first-game state. Texas seemed alive and Nebraska suddenly seemed to look a little too stoic as things went on.
“They were very low error, which is hard to play against,” setter Kelly Hunter said. “And we were kind of the opposite. So just their mentality, they were fired up. They took it from us right from the start.”
More than once, in conversations with Cook this season, he mentioned the “grind” of the Big Ten. Nebraska wanted that title badly. It was the thing this remarkable senior class hadn’t done yet, and it went out and got it; the toughest conference title to win certainly this year, but maybe in many years.
And while it offers no solace to Husker fans who were dreaming of topping it with a second-consecutive national title, it’s fair to ask if a conference like that, the game-by-game grind, wears down teams as they get this deep in the tournament. Neither Texas nor Stanford, the two winners on Thursday night, won their conferences. Minnesota would’ve won the Big Ten if Nebraska hadn’t edged it out on the final weekend.
Cook said he had no indication the Huskers would play as they did against the Longhorns. He thought the team had a great week of practice. The consistency was there, as it had been all season long. But after watching the Gophers fall to Stanford, then watching Nebraska miss opportunities to swing the match with uncharacteristic errors, if you’re suddenly considering how thin the edge is between battle-tested and battle-worn, you aren’t alone.
“I’m starting to wonder for us and Minnesota if playing so many hard matches this year in the Big Ten did take some of it out of us,” Cook said.
It didn’t feel like an excuse, just the thing you wonder when the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds lose on the same night, the unsatisfying, even if true, answers you look for when a season reaches its end.
It wasn’t regret, just reality.
“I have no regrets,” Cook said. “Nothing I would have changed. Nothing I would have done different. I felt like it was a great season.”
If there was going to be regret, you would figure it would weigh the heaviest on one of the seniors. Outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen’s career, one of the most notable in school history, ended Thursday night, but there she was falling back on something she’s been hearing for many years now.
“We did have a spectacular year, especially for the seniors,” she said. “I wouldn’t regret anything this year.”
Sometimes great seasons end early. In Nebraska’s case, it was one match early, which can hurt the worst, but there’s a win there, too.
The theory behind that no-regrets sentiment is the “million-dollar question,” another of Cook’s motivational moves. The question is this: If someone gave you a million dollars today, would you change anything about how hard you’re working?
The answer among the Huskers, even in the minutes after the end of another season, seemed pretty clear — they were prepared for this, too.
They were being prepared for it the moment they joined the program. That’s what it takes to survive in volleyball’s upper reaches.