After a few weeks of anticipation, the wait is almost over for the Nebraska volleyball team. The Huskers arrived in Omaha on Monday night and have been killing time until they’re allowed to hit the practice court.
“It’s nice to finally be here,” Lauren Stivrins said. “I think everyone’s really excited. We haven’t got to see the gym really yet — I think our practice time is tomorrow — but we’re all super excited to be here and it’s definitely setting in that this is all real. It’s ind of crazy seeing all the teams that are here and seeing people at testing and stuff. I think that also makes it very real.”
That being said, it’s still a very different feel than what the Huskers are used to when they begin their NCAA Tournament journey. The players have to wear masks everywhere they go, but that’s nothing new in 2021. What is different is having so many teams in the same place.
“Every time the elevator opens it’s a new team so it’s weird to see that too,” Stivrins said. “I think it’s really exciting and I think everyone can kind of feel the, not tension, but the excitement in the air. I think everyone’s really ready to begin.”
Stivrins said she’s seen most of the other Big Ten teams in their hotel, the Marriott, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue.
“All of our meeting rooms are right next to each other too, so you walk out and you see different players and coaches from each team,” Stivrins said. “That’s kind of cool but it’s also very strange.”
Tuesday was filled with a lot of downtime, but things ramp up on Wednesday as the Huskers gear up for their second-round match on Thursday.
“Just seeing all the other teams here bring a little bit of a level of excitement I think and anticipation,” Coach John Cook said. “But this is the way it is and I think once we get in there — tomorrow’s going to be a pretty hectic day for us. We have two practices, very short practices, and testing. So tomorrow might seem more like there’s something going on here. But seeing the other teams does bring some excitement and of course, being at the CHI Center, it brings back a lot of memories for Nebraska volleyball and for me. We’ve played some big matches in there, so that part gets you a little bit fired up.”
This year isn’t going to look anything like the last time Nebraska played in Omaha, and although none of the players on this year’s team were on the roster when the Huskers won the national championship in 2015, Cook is trying to manage expectations as best he can.
“It’s going to be a lot different, so we have to temper our expectations for what a normal event here in Omaha would be like, because this is going to be much different and the setup is going to be different,” Cook said. “It’s essentially going to be like a club tournament. Of course I’ve recruited at a million club tournaments and these guys have played in a million club tournaments. But it will be exciting to play good competition and have a chance to play.
“Normally we would be going to Scottsbluff or Chadron or North Platte to play a spring match right now, so it’s a different feel from the time of year point of view. I think once we get on the court and we know it’s for real, I think our team’s going to really rise up, have fun and compete really hard.”
The setup in the CHI Health Center convention center dominated the national discourse late last week, but the Huskers haven’t gotten a chance to see it in person just yet unlike the teams that are set to play in the first round on Wednesday.
“Basically we’ve been in the hotel,” Cook said. “I have a really nice room with great views of Omaha and the Missouri River, so I’m pretty happy. The most common activity right now is we go over and get tested.”
Even though they haven’t seen it themselves yet, the Nebraska players have heard about the conditions from friends and acquaintances who have. One reporter asked Stivrins if she thought the conditions were sufficient.
“Um, I’d like to say yes and I feel like I should say yes, but I’ve also heard from a lot of the teams that are practicing that play tomorrow that the gym is not quite what we want it to be and stuff like that,” Stivrins said. “The ‘locker rooms’ that we all have for the first few rounds are just little white tents that they’ve pitched right next to the court, so that’s kind of interesting. Then I know they worked really hard getting our Teraflexes here and stuff, but from what I’ve heard it’s still a pretty rough set-up for a championship event.”
Here are the "locker rooms" at the NCAA Volleyball tournament. pic.twitter.com/dMe5bLQOfN
— Dave Feit (@FeitCanWrite) April 13, 2021
Despite concerns about the conditions, the Huskers are still excited to play in this year’s tournament. In fact, Stivrins used that word or some variation nine times in a six-an-a-half-minute interview.
“We’re just so grateful to even have a tournament, and I think that’s the main thing we need to focus on because I’m grateful that our team’s even in the tournament in the first place,” Stivrins said. “I think we need to focus on that and focus on our team and not really what’s going on outside of all of that because it’s completely out of our control.”
Though the Huskers are preparing for their first match on Thursday, they won’t know who they’re going to face until late on Wednesday afternoon. In-person scouting won’t be allowed for opposing coaches and other teams, so the Huskers will have to watch the stream of the first-round match between Texas State and Utah Valley at 2:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday to learn their opponent.
“It is unique and it’s kind of more exciting,” Stivrins said. “We don’t really know what’s going on and we’ve been training for pretty much both teams. We’ve kind of just been trying to clean up stuff that we can control and the stuff that we need to work on. It’s definitely exciting and I’m excited to see these teams kind of go at it and see what they have and what we need to start preparing for. It’s a real question mark but I’m definitely excited for it.”
The Huskers will take the court on Thursday for a 2:30 p.m. CT match on WatchESPN.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.