LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is preparing to host one last weekend of volleyball this season as the NCAA Tournament regional final in Lincoln begins on Friday.
“I’m super excited that the regional is here in Devaney,” Coach John Cook said. “Our people do an amazing job of hosting this event. Out hosts who host the teams, our set-up crew … It just feels like such a first class event and how things are run here and it makes me really appreciate coaching at Nebraska and putting on an event like this. It’s going to be a first-class event that all three teams that are here really deserve to be involved in.”
No. 1 seed Nebraska will take on No. 16 seed Penn State at 11 a.m., while No. 8 seed Washington will face Arizona on the other side of the bracket. Winners advance to the Elite Eight game on Saturday at 3 p.m.
Nebraska’s match will be televised on ESPNU with the network’s top broadcast crew of Paul Sunderland and U.S. national team coach Karch Kiraly.
With the early start time, Cook said the Huskers will not have a pre-game serve and pass session, opting instead to let the team get a little more sleep. Plenty of Husker fans showed up for Thursday’s 11 a.m. open practice, however, setting the stage for Friday’s sold out event.
“There’s no place like Nebraska,” Cook said. “This is the epicenter of volleyball.”
The Huskers have had to play early matches twice before this season and senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes said the Huskers will be ready to go.
“I think our team has done a really good job of just having a really good mindset no matter what time we play,” Wong-Orantes said. “We’ve been kind of thrown off with just Friday-Sunday matches so we’ve had to adjust a lot this season and I think this team has done a really good job of, no matter what time or where we’re going to play, we’re going to just have a really good mindset going into the match and get it done.”
For top seeds like Nebraska, the earlier rounds usually don’t provide the same level of competition as they’ll see in the second weekend and beyond, but senior outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen said nothing will change this week as the Huskers adopted the survive and advance mindset when the tournament began.
“I don’t know if it’s really this weekend; it’s just once you hit the tournament, you lose and you go home,” Rolfzen said. “I just think you have to have that mindset that you’re going to go out there and you’re going to give it your all and anybody can beat anybody in the tournament. I think it’s just going out there and kind of like our theme this whole season has been just playing point by point and I think that’s what we need to do tomorrow and for the rest of the tournament.”
The final weekend of the season for the Devaney Center also marks the final weekend at home for Rolfzen and twin sister Amber, who committed to Nebraska before they even began high school.
“It definitely does feel like, I guess eight years is who long we’ve been with the program, but it definitely doesn’t feel like we’ve been here that long,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “It was just exciting to be able to come here and play for Nebraska being from Nebraska. Amber was actually talking to me the other day that we’ll never play on our [court] again … It’s just weird to be able to go out there and know that no matter what, we play our last games this weekend here at Nebraska. It’s just been fun and exciting.”
The Huskers and Nittany Lions last saw each other on Nov. 16 as Nebraska swept Penn State at the Devaney Center. Earlier in the season, the Huskers won in five sets at Penn State. The Huskers were the last team to defeat the Nittany Lions, though Cook said not much has changed since then.
“Not much has changed,” Cook said. “They keep flipping setters, so that’s the big thing he’s been changing. The personnel’s still the same. It’s Penn State. They’ve won a lot of national championships doing what they do so they don’t stray much from what they normally do. They’ll have something that I’m sure they’ll challenge us with that maybe they didn’t do in the first couple matches … We just talked about the different things that we potentially we could see and that Penn State might do. We’ve talked about it. Whoever you play, you have to be ready to make adjustments as the match goes on.”
The last time these two teams faced off in the postseason was in the 2008 Final Four. The Nittany Lions won in five sets before moving on to sweep Stanford in the championship. The Huskers were the only team to win a set against Penn State that season.
“That was one of the greatest matches ever played,” Cook said. “I know [Penn State Coach] Russ [Rose] told me afterward he couldn’t hear it was so loud. He had a headache. That was an incredible performance by that Nebraska team even though we lost in five. Nobody thought we’d get to the Final Four, much less – Penn State had an incredible team, the greatest team ever probably in the history of college volleyball, didn’t lose a set until that match. It was a heck of a match. But every time we play Penn State it’s a great match. There’s a different electricity in the gym when Penn State and Nebraska play.”
This time around, Wong-Orantes said the key to the match will be the same as it is in every match they play.
“I think like always it’s a serve and pass battle, whether it’s a preseason match or a Big Ten match or a postseason match,” Wong-Orantes said. “That’s the number one thing. We’re going to dime balls to Kelly and we’re going to serve lights out. We had a really good practice of that and Coach even said that, so that definitely gives us confidence going into the match.”
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.