After a long and grueling season for the young Cornhuskers, the postseason has finally arrived. No. 7 seed Nebraska will take to the Devaney Center court on Friday for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“For me personally, this team is the most improved team in the country I think and I’m really excited to see what level we can play at and will play at in the tournament as we get going in this thing,” Coach John Cook said. “I just think it’s been a slow build but it’s been a really good slow build and I think this team is really dialed in. In 2016 it felt like we were walking through mud; I feel like right now we’re just starting to figure this thing out and it’s exciting, it’s fun, our team’s excited to be in practice, there’s just a lot of energy. It’s something new and exciting; I don’t feel like we’re defending anything. This team wants to go out and prove what they can do.”
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney echoed her coaches thoughts.
“I think if you look back at our team in October, we are a totally different team than we were then,” Maloney said. “We’re closing out tight matches and competing really hard and playing with our heart and I think that’s something that we kind of didn’t have at first, so I’m just super excited to go into the tournament and prove people wrong and prove to people how good we can be.”
The Huskers will face Hofstra, the champion of the Colonial Athletic Association. Nebraska is 2-0 all-time against the Pride with the last meeting coming in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, a 27-25, 25-23, 25-16 sweep for the Huskers. That was Hofstra’s last tournament appearance, though the Pride have made the tournament nine times including this year.
“The first thing I told the team today in our video is the last time we played them, both the first and second games were deuce games,” Cook said. “It’s not a typical Big Ten team but they can play volleyball. We’ll have to almost adjust as much to them as they will to us. But this team — as I’ve said all year — prepares great. These guys understand. They make sure we’re dialed in.”
The Pride went 25-7 and closed out the season on a nine-match winning streak. They finished the season first in the conference in hitting (.358) and aces per set (1.72, the 11th most in the country), second in kills per set (14.02) and third in opponent attack percentage (.178).
“They’ve got some good servers, but when you get to this point, you’ve got to to be a good serving team to get to the tournament,” Cook said. “We train for the toughest serves we’re ever going to see.”
Passing is an area in which the Huskers struggled quite a bit early in the season, which wasn’t a surprise for Cook with all of the new players the team had to incorporate this season.
“[We’ve made] major, major gains in our confidence and our relationships next to each other and the communication part of it,” Cook said. “It takes a long time to build that. The advantage of last year’s team, these two [senior co-captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney], Anni [Albrecht] and Syd [Townsend] were together for three years passing together. Now we’ve got two brand new people in there, actually three if you count Hayley [Densberger] in there, and we had Jazz [Sweet] in there for a while, so that’s four new people you’re throwing into the mix. There is a real art to being a great passing team and understanding who’s got what balls because it’s happening pretty fast out there.”
Junior outside hitter Laura Masciullo leads the attack for the Pride at 3.68 kills per set on .290 hitting. She posted 25 kills in Hofstra’s five-set win over James Madison in the CAA tournament championship game and was named to the All-CAA First Team.
Junior setter Luisa Sydlik led the CAA in assists at 11.74 per set this season and was second in aces per set (0.33) behind her teammate, sophomore outside hitter Ivania Ortiz.
Emily Mansur has coached the Pride for five seasons, leading the team to a 112-48 record over that span. She has recruited internationally heavily as twelve of Hofstra’s 15 players are from outside the United States.
The Huskers have two seniors who have played in three Final Fours as well as three freshmen in the regular rotation who have yet to experience NCAA Tournament play. Cook asked his seniors to address the rest of the team to share what they’ve learned over the past three years.
“He just kind of asked us to prepare them since some of them haven’t been through it before and we just told them you have to take it one game at a time and just because it’s the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mean its any different from any of the games we have ever played,” senior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “Just keep yourself level-headed and prepare for any team; don’t look too far ahead.”
Cook said that his team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores should be ready for whatever the tournament throws their way after the season they just experienced.
“What we’ve been through this season, starting with the Red-White [Scrimmage] through playing four top-10 teams in a row on the road, these guys have been battle tested,” Cook said. “I don’t know what else to do to prepare them and I think they feed off of Mikaela and Kenzie, their confidence.”
First serve on Friday for the sold-out match is set for 7 p.m. on NET.
On the other side of the bracket is a showdown between two teams that just cracked the tail end of the final AVCA Coaches Poll of the regular season, No. 23 Arizona (22-10) and No. 24 Missouri (23-7). That match will precede Nebraska’s with the first serve set for 4:30 p.m. at the Devaney Center.
The two winners will face off in the second round at the Devaney on Saturday at 7 p.m.
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.