The Nebraska volleyball team enjoyed an evening of rest and relaxation on Friday night ahead of Saturday night’s National Championship match against the Florida Gators.
The Huskers have been going nonstop since Wednesday morning with press conferences, a banquet and other obligations, not to mention Thursday’s five-set thriller against Penn State in the National Semifinals.
However, busy weekends are nothing new to the Big Ten champions.
“Both those teams played really hard last night,” Coach John Cook said. “That's why recovery is so important. It's something we've been working on as a part of our program. We have people that help us with our recovery and performance … They meditated last night just to calm down and go to sleep because they needed a good night's sleep. So we're all about recovery…
“But one thing about playing in the Big Ten, we're used to this. You're used to playing Penn State and then turning around and playing another great team the next night, or you play Minnesota-Wisconsin back-to-back. This is part of the deal of being in the Big Ten, and it's something that helps prepare us.”
Saturday will be round two for the Gators and Huskers after Florida beat Nebraska in five in Gainesville as part of the VERT Challenge in late August. Senior setter Kelly Hunter did not play in that match, however,
“I think we’ve improved a lot [since the first weekend] because we had so many question marks going into that match, but we were right there with a chance to win,” Cook said. “That one kind of got away from us and Florida played great at the end. This will be a good rematch.”
The Huskers opened the season in a 0-2 hole after losing both VERT Challenge matches (the first against Oregon). However, Hunter returned soon after and Nebraska only dropped two more matches the rest of the season.
“The biggest thing we got out of that first weekend was knowing that we were a team that could be great,” Hunter said. “We were right there, right at the beginning. The first two matches of the year being pretty close to winning some of those games were big for us … We took that as a learning experience, rather than getting defeated. We came out strong, and we opened up the Big Ten great. We just kind of showed people the team that we thought we could be.”
The Huskers showed what kind of team they are on Thursday night as well, taking down top-seeded Penn State for the seventh straight time despite not passing as well as they normally do. Hunter said the Huskers are going to have to be sharper to beat the Gators on Saturday.
“I think both teams have a great balanced attack with great middles, right side, outsides everywhere,” Hunter said. “So I think it will be an interesting match and where that comes down to is serve and pass, which is our bread and butter; thats where we live every day. Last night we didn’t pass that well so it was kind of a different match for us. We weren’t as in control as we would have liked. I’m thinking that we’re going to come out tomorrow, pass dimes and run a great offense.”
Nebraska managed to out-block the Nittany Lions (fifth in the country in blocks per set) 13-12 on Thursday. Florida one spot behind Penn State in blocking and rolls out a pair of middle-blockers measuring in at 6-foot-8 (Rachel Kramer) and 6-foot-4 (Rhamat Alhassan).
“We train to play the more big, physical teams in our gym,” Cook said. “We see so many in the Big Ten. Michigan State, Penn State, Minnesota last year was a huge block. So that's something you just can't go into a match and say, OK, the blocks are bigger and we're going to keep doing the same things. So we always prepare for the bigger blocks and that's how we train every day. So for us, the block is our friend and we want to use it. That's part of being a great outside hitter. Sometimes there are bigger blockers up there that allow our hitters to have more arms and elbows to hit off of as opposed to a smaller block.”
Nebraska and Florida both boast a top-10 defense nationally in terms of opponent hitting percentage, and Cook knows points will not be easy to come by on Saturday.
“I think when you get into these matches, it's going to be long rallies,” Cook said. “It's hard to put the ball away. The block is good. There are good hitters and they're going to make nice kills, but there are going to be long rallies. We talk about that all the time with our team. We talked about it in practice today, we're going to have to win some long rallies, and other people are going to have to set the ball besides Kelly, and we're going to have to put us in a position where we can try to score.”
In the first match, the Huskers held outside hitter Carli Snyder and Alhassan in check with eight kills apiece on a combined .080 hitting percentage, but Kramer went off with 20 kills on just 28 swings and explosive outside hitter Shaina Joseph added 11 kills.
For the Huskers, junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke totaled 18 kills and 16 digs while working with a new setter in redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton and adjusting to playing all six rotations for the first time.
What will the Huskers have to do to get the win this time? Who better to ask than Florida coach Mary Wise?
“Nebraska would have to continue being low-error, can't give up points by Florida's middles, and they have to defend from pin-to-pin,“ Wise said. “Because we're going to try to get balls in the middle, and we're going to try to get kills from pin-to-pin.”
Nebraska and Penn State set a new attendance record with 18,374 fans in the crowd with most of them wearing Husker red. Saturday’s crowd is expected to look much the same and Wise went so far as to say on Thursday night that the Gators are looking forward to playing one last road game.
“I think we are so happy to embrace this moment,” Florida libero Caroline Knop said. “What an awesome environment this is. What a cool atmosphere it's going to be tomorrow night, and I love this. I love that we're going to be playing in front of 16,000 Nebraska fans and we're going to have our little section of orange and blue that's going to be cheering us on. That's all we need, to be completely honest.”
The Huskers and Gators will have to wait around all day for the final match of the season as the first serve at the Sprint Center is set for 8 p.m. CT on ESPN2. Nebraska’s pre-match pep rally is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Power and Light District in Kansas City.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.