The Nebraska volleyball team got clarity on its 2020–21 season last week when the NCAA Board of Governors approved a plan for a season spanning Jan. 22 through April 25.
The NCAA Tournament will include 48 teams, 32 of which will be automatic qualifiers. Details for regionals and host sites still need to be worked out, but Coach John Cook told reporters last Friday that he’s heard that Omaha is “good to go” to host the NCAA Championship (the volleyball Final Four) as it was scheduled to during the fall before the pandemic hit.
Cook also said that he anticipates the Big Ten playing a conference-only schedule, and if other leagues follow the same plan, choosing those 16 at-large teams and seeding the tournament could become very difficult.
“That’s probably come up on every Big Ten call we’ve been on is how does this NCAA Tournament get managed?” Cook said. “But we do know there’s going to be 32 automatic qualifiers, so that takes 32. Now you’re looking at the other 16. What we’ve been told is they may have to go some by history, which would favor the Power Five conferences and the conferences that have done really well in the past NCAA Tournaments.
“If we’re playing only conference and other teams are playing only conference, you’re going to have a really hard time comparing. I think it’s going to be controversial, I think it will be really tough to get in, there’s a huge premium on winning your conference and being an automatic qualifier. So all those things come into play.”
Further complicating the picture is the fact that not every league chose to postpone their seasons to the new year. Some are playing condensed seasons in the fall while others have planned split seasons featuring some matches in the fall and some in the spring. The NCAA Tournament selection committee will draw from all of the leagues, regardless of when they play their season. Cook said there are different ways to look at the various formats, but he doesn’t believe teams in the Big Ten will be at any kind of disadvantage based on the overall strength of the conference.
“I’ve thought a lot about that—how hard do we fight to try to get some matches this fall, and we’ve been told no by the Big Ten,” Cook said. “I get it, they’re trying to get football going. But I think there’s a couple ways to look at it. If those guys are playing now, they’re going to have a big break and then come back. Maybe that helps them. But I’m not worried about the teams in the Big Ten. I think our conference is so competitive. If we can get 11 weeks playing in the Big Ten, we are going to be prepared for an NCAA Tournament. What we’re not going to be able to do is experiment with lineups, mess around with some teams that you know you’re probably going to beat and work through that. It’s going to be go time Jan. 22.
“But I feel like we’ve got a pretty good block of time to train and prepare for that. The first weekend might be a little wild because there will be a lot of nerves and anxiousness. Maybe the teams playing this fall can kind of work through that. But I feel if we can get 22 matches in the Big Ten, we’re going to be well prepared for the tournament and will have been through the wars.”
In the mean time, the Huskers will gradually ramp up their workouts over the next few months to prepare for the January start. Their COVID-19 testing protocols have not yet been solidified beyond what Nebraska was already doing with its student-athletes, but Cook said he’s hoping to eventually piggyback off what the football team is doing in terms of daily antigen testing. Cook credited team trainer Jolene Emricson for all the work she’s done keeping he team safe.
As part of a pandemic-related cost-cutting plan, the university temporarily shut down the training table. Nebraska has changed course somewhat on that since the reinstatement of the football season, but as the only active sport training table access will be restricted to the football program. That hasn’t been a problem for Cook’s team, however.
“We have our nutritionist, Nuwaneee [Kirihennedige], and Dave Ellis,” Cook said. “Those guys do an amazing job with whatever cards they’re dealt … The athletes still have a lot of supplements and different things that are available to them in our weight room. So they pretty much, I think, can eat a couple meals a day from there. The biggest challenge is how many of these guys know how to prepare a meal, or do they just hit fast food at home? Nuwanee prepared a cook book with recipes, and I think pre-COVID we were doing bake deals with our team and different things. So I think our group has gotten really into preparing good meals, and Nuwanee gave them an outline.
“I think for us, it’s actually been kind of funny because they’re challenged in a different way—they have to think about it, they have to shop and prepare opening that’s good for them and will prepare them, especially as we ramp up training here. Our nutrition staff has done an amazing job.”
Despite all the challenges the pandemic has created for student-athletes, from the nutrition issues to the lack of training facility access both at home and in Lincoln for many of the players during the early stages of the pandemic, Cook said his team is in good shape. He tested the Huskers in August and seven of them earned their way into the 2,000-point club in the programs performance index testing. Cook called that a “big deal.”
“They did a really good job of managing all summer and dealing with all the hardships of not being as organized and together as we are in a normal year,” Cook said.
The veteran coach has long preferred a move to the spring, and he said his assistant coaches, Tyler Hildebrand and Jaylen Reyes, will be valuable in helping the team prepare for the spring season since both have experience coaching men’s programs.
There’s no doubt that this year’s move to the spring is out of necessity, but Cook is hoping the NCAA will strongly consider making the move permanent.
“I got up at the convention 15 years ago and said we should do this because TV ratings were hurting at the time,” Cook said. “Even in the Big Ten right now, as soon as basketball starts, volleyball goes to the back burner and we’re watching Ohio State play some team we’ve never heard of in primetime. This would get us away from all that and I think open up a lot of doors. I think we could do something with the men that could be pretty cool.”
Cook referenced all the other sports that hold both their men’s and women’s seasons together during the same season like basketball, swimming, golf and tennis.
“What does volleyball have?” Cook said. “Volleyball doesn’t have anything; we get kind of thrown in with football, I guess, which is not a comparison. I just think that would be kind of a cool thing and maybe help men’s volleyball get more opportunity to start some more programs when we get through all of this.”
Cook also believes a move to the spring would open the door for more teams to participate in beach volleyball. If the indoor season takes place during the late winter to early spring window where beach volleyball takes place currently, the beach season could move to a different season with warmer temperatures; not every school has an indoor beach court like Nebraska does.
“I hope they look at it that way and don’t look at it like we’re just trying to get through this and get to the fall,” Cook said.
Whether it’s just for one year or the beginning of something more permanent, Cook and his staff should have this experienced group Huskers ready to roll come January.