The Big Ten’s decision to postpone the volleyball season created an extra five months of waiting for John Cook’s team.
The Huskers took advantage of that time to work on their games, take a few breaks and grow closer together. To be ready to hit the ground running when Jan. 22 rolled around, they took as many precautions as possible to stay safe while continuing to work.
“I think being in a bubble kind of forces you to be a group and they spend a lot of time with each other because you have to stay within your bubble,” Cook said. “Same with the coaches — we’re all trying to stay within a bubble, we’re not out recruiting, we’re not out going places. I just think there’s been a lot more quality time spent as our group, and when I say our group I’m talking about our coaches, our grad managers, our support staff and of course our players.”
The Huskers brought back all seven starters, three reserves and one redshirt freshman, so there was plenty of camaraderie already built up. Cook added three freshmen plus a transfer to that group that are still learning all about Nebraska volleyball.
The last five months haven’t been easy by any means. In addition to the daily stress of living in a pandemic while also attending college, the Huskers have had to continue to work without the reward of a game on the horizon. Junior setter Nicklin Hames said that’s been the hardest part about this extended offseason — maintaining that motivation day in and day out. Cook worked in a few breaks during their training schedule, and they haven’t had heir full compliment of players for every session, but through all that they stuck together and now game week has finally arrived.
“I think this past semester has been kind of crazy for everyone and we’ve really done a good job of taking it day by day,” senior middle blocker and team captain Lauren Stivrins said. “As Coach said, we’ve kind of been in a bubble for a while and so this team has been on the same page with everything from the get-go. This team has always been super close, but it’s been super easy to keep everyone contained because we do enjoy spending time with each other. I just think everyone having similar goals and interests as far as what they want out of this season and out of this training block, that’s been super beneficial and everyone has just been working super hard and being super mindful throughout this whole process and not letting it get to us or getting overwhelmed by anything. Think we’ve done a good job of staying together.”
The biggest of those shared goals is making it back to Omaha, the site of the 2020-21 Final Four (and potentially the entire tournament according to Cook). The Huskers aren’t hiding from the tournament being played right down the road.
“It’s been in the back of our minds,” Hames said. “We talk about it; we don’t want it to be something we don’t talk about at all. We know that’s a possibility and we want to be prepared for that, but I think we’re super excited to get to play anywhere. But having it in Nebraska and in this state and all the fans maybe can hopefully go by then, it would just be amazing. I think the team’s really prepared for that and I think we’ve done a good job talking about it and so it kind of takes the pressure off of it.”
The Huskers weren’t testing daily previously while they waited for their season to arrive, but they are now. Hames described the student-athletes’ daily process.
“We’re in the bubble, so we’re just around the people that are basically here at practice every day,” Hames said. “Every morning when you wake up you fill out a … form which asks about if you have any symptoms, have you ever been in contact with somebody who has COVID or you had a test recently. So we fill it out in the morning and you get cleared with that, and then we take our temperatures and we’ve been getting tested every morning this week. Once we’re cleared, then we can do different activities like working out and practice.
“We’ve been super careful with wearing our masks everywhere we go and just making sure that we’re taking it very seriously and making sure that we’re around people who are also taking it very seriously. We all have goals in mind for this season and we want to make sure that we’re doing the best we can outside of here so that we can have a successful season.”
As careful as the Huskers are being, as we’ve seen with both the football and men’s basketball teams, there’s no way to guarantee the season will play out as scheduled without any interruptions. When Cook spoke with the media last week, he didn’t yet have total clarity on what the process will be for postponing matches if COVID-19 issues pop up, especially if contact tracing wipes out an entire position group.
“The most important thing for me is can we put out a team that can compete and be safe?” Cook said. “You’re not going to take a libero and put her at middle blocker, for example. So if you don’t have setters, you’re not going to be able to be competitive. I think there are going to be some rules in place, but also I think it comes down to two coaches talking — is it worth it, spending money to travel and do all that if it’s not going to be competitive? That will be the most important thing is having a quality product and keeping it competitive and making sure the athletes stay safe.”
The Huskers know this season will provide more challenges, and postponements are likely. Mentally, they’re prepared for whatever 2021 throws their way.
“We’ve kind of been talking about this from the beginning, but everything at this point is so out of our control so there’s no reason for us to try and intervene or get worked up over the things we cannot control,” Stivrins said. “I think that this team, as young as they are, they’ve been super mature in handling everything because we have had a lot of ups and downs throughout this past few months, I would say. To see everyone kind of just not get overwhelmed by everything has been amazing and I think if we continue to have that mindset throughout this entire season we’ll be just fine.”
The NCAA decided to go with a different plan than the one Cook suggested and has long advocated for, but he said he’s still interested in seeing how fans react to a spring season.
“It’s not exactly how I would set it up; I would change the dates a little bit and move it later to avoid some of the conflicts in scheduling with basketball and gymnastics and those things, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already seen our TV schedule — pretty much 90% of our matches are going to be televised. There’s a great indicator for you right there. Out of 22 matches, I think 19 may be televised. We don’t have that in the fall, especially after Nov. 1 when basketball starts.”
As of the time of publishing, the Big Ten had yet to officially announce match start times and TV designations. However, BTN+ lists the Friday-Saturday back-to-back matchups between the No. 5 Huskers and Indiana and Bloomington for 5 p.m. CT.
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.