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Nebraska Cornhuskers Kenzie Knuckles (2) during their volleyball match against Maryland.
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Focused on Staying in the Moment as NCAA Tournament Begins

December 03, 2021

The last three months and 28 matches have been building to this: the march to a national championship begins in earnest as Nebraska opens NCAA Tournament play on Friday night.

“I think we’re all just super excited, especially just to have the opportunity to do it, but I think we’re also just excited because we feel really prepared,” Kenzie Knuckles said.

As the No. 10 seed, Nebraska earned the right to begin tournament play in its own arena as Campbell, Kansas State and Florida State have traveled to Lincoln to play at the Devaney Center for the first and second rounds.

“It’s awesome,” Knuckles said. “It’s really exciting. We love playing in Devaney. We love playing in front of our fans and there’s not really fans like when you play at Devaney. So it’s super exciting for us and all of our family gets to be there, so that’s another part of it.”

The Wildcats and Seminoles will face off in the first match at 4:30 p.m. CT with the Huskers and Fighting Camels to follow at 7 p.m. (both available to watch via ESPN+). Campbell earned its first ever NCAA Tournament berth by upsetting Big South regular season champion High Point in the conference tournament.

“First of all, it’s a great accomplishment,” Coach John Cook said. “They had a great win, a barnburner five-gamer, to get here. All I know is teams play out of their minds when they come here. They give us fits and they play great because it’s exciting, they get to play in front of a big crowd which they’re probably not used to. So I think in many ways, it helps those teams play great. So we have to expect them to give us a great effort.”

Campbell’s home, Gore Arena, seats 3,095, less than half of what will fill the Devaney Center on Friday.

“We heard that Campbell was practicing with crowd noise, so I guess they’re trying to get prepared for what it’s going to be like to play in Devaney,” Kubik said. “But I don’t know if there’s anything like it until you actually play in that environment.”

Campbell is 21-9 this season, but the Camels have only faced one power conference opponent in USC back in August, a 3-0 Trojan win.

Campbell is hitting just .188 this season but is also holding its opponents to .149. The Fighting Camels have three pins averaging between 2.5 and 2.7 kills per set, but Lailah Green (2.62 kills per set) and Chloe Cook (2.6 kills per set) are hitting 1.20 and .161, respectively. Big South Tournament MVP Sarah Colla is averaging 2.55 kills per set on .214 hitting. Middle blocker Meoldy Paige is leading the team in hitting at .301 while chipping in 2.0 kills per set while Madee Miner (5.42 assists per set) and Emily Mitter (4.38) split the setting duties. Libero Claranne Fechter leads the defensive effort with 4.56 digs per set.

“They run an unusual system,” Cook said. “They run a 6-2, and without getting too complicated — you’d have to ask the coach why they do it — but their outside hitters play in the middle position, and the middles play in the outside hitter position, but the middles will go hit middle and the outsides will go hit outside … They run people all over the place. So it’s kind of confusing, in a way, because we don’t see that in the Big Ten. So we’ll have to prepare well and make sure our players don’t get caught up in all that and just play volleyball.”

As they often do, the Huskers spent a lot of time in practice this week working on themselves and fine-tuning everything that they do to better prepare them for the challenges they’ll face in the tournament.

“I think a lot of matches come down to us being able to play Nebraska volleyball and playing in the moment and playing with joy, and I think this week we really focused on just doing the things that we can can do and the things that we can control and that’ll help us win those close matches when it comes down to it,” Kubik said.

The Huskers won five of their last six including matches against top-15 teams in Penn State and Purdue. The lone loss came to Big Ten champion Wisconsin in four sets, though the first set was one of Nebraska’s best of the season and the last three were all close.

“We’ve been talking about trying to get better every week and every practice,” Cook said. “I don’t know if we’re peaking, but we’re playing good volleyball. We played some great volleyball against Penn State and against Wisconsin and against Purdue. We didn’t get the result we wanted at Wisconsin, but we’ve played some really high level volleyball and then our serve, block and defense is exceptional, and that’s going to give anybody problems.”

The Huskers were second in the Big Ten in aces per set, fifth in blocks per set and first in opponent hitting percentage by a significant margin during conference play, and perhaps that played a big role in libero Lexi Rodriguez winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year from the league’s coaches, just the second freshman to ever do so.

“I can’t say I was shocked because she’s a stud and she’s so deserving of it,” Knuckles said. “So I wasn’t really shocked but just super proud of her because she worked so hard. Like I’ve said before, she came in and she was a star right out of the gate, and I was like ‘I don’t know how she’s going to get any better, honestly, because she’s just amazing as is.’ But she’s grown so much this season too. So I’m just really proud of her and she’s worked really hard for this and she’s really deserving of it.”

While the defense has been consistent, the offense has not. Madi Kubik is the only pin-hitter who has started every match while senior Lexi Sun and freshmen Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst have each logged double-digit starts. Freshman Whitney Lauenstein started at opposite hitter the last two matches, though Krause finished against Purdue as Cook has not shied away from going to his bench when the starters have struggled.

“I want us to be a little bit better than we’ve been,” Cook said. “But we’ve got five players we can play and I’ve got no problem playing them. At this point in the year, if you’re not getting it done, we’ll give somebody else a shot. This isn’t about ‘OK, we’re going to trust you for a while and let you work through this.’ This is do or die at this point. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been playing people because you get into these situations, if you’ve got people you can play, I want them feeling comfortable coming in, starting or coming in, however we end up doing it that night.”

This time of year, tomorrow is never promised and the season could come to an end at any moment. From here on out, every match is win or go home, and the Huskers certainly aren’t overlooking their first opponent. In fact, the players had not even begun looking at either the Seminoles or the Wildcats as of Thursday evening’s press conference.

“We talk about it a lot, just taking it day by day and being present in the moment, just worrying about one match at a time,” Kubik said. “We can’t get too ahead of ourselves. Taking it point by point, play by play, and that’s going to help us to just stay with each other and make it really joyful so we can be present.”

What will be the key to making it out of the weekend?

“Thump our serves,” Kubik said. “If we get them out of system, we’ll win.”

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