LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska may be the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, but that certainly hasn’t earned them any preferential treatment. First of all, Nebraska was placed in a regional that also includes Penn State and Washington, and together those three teams have accounted for nine of the past 11 national championships.
On top of that, the committee gave Nebraska’s Sweet 16 match against No. 16 seed Penn State at the Devaney Center an 11 a.m. start time on Friday. Coach John Cook said he isn’t exactly thrilled about the decision, but is spinning it as a compliment to Nebraska and its fans.
“I don’t think it’s good for the sport of volleyball, to promote it, to play at 11 in the morning,” Cook said. “There are several other options we could do but that’s not the time or place for this. My theory is one of the reasons Nebraska is playing early and Wisconsin’s not and Minnesota’s not and Texas is not is because they know we’re still going to fill Devaney whether it’s 11 in the morning, 7 in the morning, 10 at night, our fans are going to show up. I think or the NCAA and ESPN, it’s like a sure bet; Nebraska’s going to fill it no matter what so I think that’s respect for our fans and our fan base and the support that we have. We just want to play and have a great match and a great home environment.”
Although the early start time is somewhat unusual, it won’t be the first time this season the Huskers have had to play an early game.
“We’re not used to [the early start], but the good thing is, and I’m going to remind our players as we get closer to that date, is we’ve actually done this twice already,” Cook said. “We played Purdue at 12 on a Sunday, which actually might be a little harder than a normal week day because they’re used to getting up and going to class, Sundays they’re used to sleeping in. Then we played Montana State at noon in our tournament. So we’ve got some precedent for it and we’ve done really well in those matches. I think once they get on the court and it gets going, I think adrenaline is going to take over and nobody’s going to know what time it is.”
Cook said he’s trying to keep their practice schedule for the week as normal as possible, although they will practice at 11 a.m. on Thursday to give the team a feel for it. Nebraska’s pre-game serve and pass routine might also become a casualty of the early start time.
“I haven’t seen the schedule yet, but probably if we do it would be at 6:30 in the morning or 6 in the morning because technically I think we would go first and you have to get four teams in,” Cook said. So I don’t know if we’re going to do that. We asked the NCAA committee about that, and they said they hadn’t thought about that.”
Friday will mark the third meeting of the season between Nebraska and Penn State. The Huskers swept the Nittany Lions during the regular season. However, beating a good team three times in one season is no easy task.
“We’ve had to do it before back in the old Big 12 days,” Cook said. “We’re used to that in the Big Ten because we’ve played some teams pretty close back-to-back. Iowa within two weeks, Penn State within a couple weeks, there might have been some others in there that I can’t think of right now. It’s just part of going through the tournament. We know who we’ve got to play and that’s who we’ve got to beat. That’s our focus, trying to advance and get to Columbus.”
The Huskers are very familiar with Penn State, and Cook gave a quick rundown of what Nebraska is up against on Friday.
“You have to deal with Simone [Lee] and Haleigh [Washington] and [Ali] Frantti; those are three big-time players,” Cook said. “[Tori] Gorrell, their middle, had a good night against us here, and then [Heidi] Thelen, the right side, has had really good nights against some teams. I think when they beat Minnesota she had a big night. They can have five hitters and I don’t know which setter they’re going to play, but both those setters are active and dump a lot and attack. They’re always a great defensive team and they’re going to serve. They’re a well-balanced, physical team. They really don’t have many weaknesses.”
In order to keep things light, Cook wrapped up Monday’s practice with a serve and pass competition. The servers reportedly won the competition on an ace, but Cook ruled the serve out so that the competition would continue and the passers came back to pull off the win. The losing team had to sing a karaoke song of the winning team’s choosing.
When asked to grade the performance on a scale of one to 10, Junior Annika Albrecht could only say “bad,” and that it wouldn’t even register on that scale.
“That was funny,” Albrecht said. “That’s just a little glimpse of our team. We’re crazy. It’s so fun.”
Nebraska did receive some good news on Tuesday, however, as six Huskers – Amber Rolfzen, Kadie Rolfzen, Justine Wong-Orantes, Briana Holman, Kelly Hunter and Mikaela Foecke – were named to the AVCA All-North Region Team, setting a new school record. Cook was also named All-North Region Coach of the Year.
Friday morning’s match will be televised on ESPNU.
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.