Nebraska extended its season by at least another week with a four-set win over Missouri in the round of 32. The journey for the No. 5 Huskers (27-4) continued in practice this week as they prepare to take on 12th-seeded Hawaii on Friday.
“This is a very distracting week,” Coach John Cook said. “We’re leaving on Wednesday, they’ve got school and we’re trying to get that squared away, we’re trying to practice, we’re trying to prepare for two teams, three teams. There’s a lot going on. In practice they’re working hard and they’re getting after it. It’s almost going to feel good to get there and get settled in and get rid of all this interference and distraction.”
The Huskers are heading up to Madison for the regional round. The fourth-seeded Badgers are taking on No. 13 Texas A&M in the other side of the bracket, potentially setting up round three for Nebraska and Wisconsin in the regional final.
“We’re excited,” junior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “It’s been a fun tournament so far and we’re excited to play Hawaii, a team we haven’t played before, and hopefully get the chance to play Wisconsin again.”
The Huskers didn’t coast through the first weekend. Missouri took the first set and nearly stole the third, but Nebraska found a way to win, and Cook said that should only help his team moving forward.
“I think Missouri was a great match and they had to dig down deep,” Cook said. “I thought we got better as the match went on, which was great. We won a game we shouldn’t have won; we got behind and came back and won it. There was a lot of pressure. I think for our younger players, they learned they could hit serves under pressure. You saw Missouri miss a couple serves in that third game. We had to dig down, we had to compete, we had to make plays. It was a great test for us. It was one of the toughest second-round matches we’ve had.”
Sun said the thing they learned most from that match is they can’t take any team lightly, and they have to be ready to go from the first serve. As much as they want to get another crack at Wisconsin—the team that swept them twice in the regular season—they’re focusing on the task at hand.
“I think just knowing that one match is all it is right now,” sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller said. “We obviously have to get past Hawaii and we know that they’re going to be a tough team. We’ve been preparing for them just as hard as we have Wisconsin.”
Cook said he’s not at all worried about the players looking too far into the future.
“We’re just trying to get them to focus on the next two minutes right now; that’s where we’re at with this group,” Cook said. “I don’t ever worry about them looking ahead. Can we get through the next five minutes and get everybody on the same page and doing the right things? This is an interesting group.”
The Rainbow Wahine are 26-3 on the season and beat Northern Colorado (3-1) in the first round and San Diego (3-0) in the second to make it to Madison.
“They’re good,” Cook said. “Everybody’s good at this point. There are only 16 teams practicing today. They’re good, they run a 6-2 and they’ve got a typical Hawaii team. They move it around, they’ve got Hawaiian players, they play great defense. It’s going to be a real challenge.”
Freshman outside hitter Hanna Helvig leads the attack with 3.14 kills per set on .239 hitting. Freshman middle blocker Amber Igiede is averaging 2.09 kills and 1.24 blocks per set while hitting .359. Seniors Norene Iosia and Bailey Choy split the setting duties. On the season, Hawaii is hitting .250 and holding its opponents to .164.
“I think they’re a lot of beach players so they’re super shotty and crafty, which is going to be something that we’re going to have to be aware of,” Sun said.
The Huskers will have an edge in familiarity with the environment compared to the Rainbow Wahine as the Huskers have already played at the Wisconsin Field House this season.
“I definitely think that’s an advantage for us,” Cook said. “For Hawaii, we’ll be a Big Ten team so hopefully Wisconsin fans support us. I know when we’ve had regionals here our fans have really supported the Big Ten teams. I think the familiarity will be really good. We know it’s going to be cold, we know the town, we know all that. It’s jus like another Big Ten road trip for us.”
The Huskers also received some extra recognition on Tuesday as the AVCA released its all-region teams and the All-North Region Team featured four Huskers—Sun, junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, sophomore setter Nicklin Hames and freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik. Kubik was also named North Region Freshman of the Year after taking home the same award from the Big Ten.
Sun and Stivrins earned their second career all-region nod, though Sun’s first came during her freshman year at Texas. Kubik is Nebraska’s first North Region Freshman of the Year since Kadi Rolfzen in 2013 and sixth total. All four players are eligible for All-America recognition which will be announced on Dec. 18 ahead of the Final Four.
First serve on Friday is set for 3:30 p.m. on ESPN3. If the seeds hold, Nebraska will get another crack at the Badgers who had their number during the regular season. Wisconsin hit over .300 in both matches.
“A lot of people have been saying that it’s tough to beat a team three times,” Miller said. “We’re going to stick with that and we know their offense pretty well now, so I feel like we should have an edge on that and hopefully take a step up this time.”
The regional final is set for 5 p.m. on Saturday.
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.