For the 11th straight year, the Nebraska volleyball team — currently ranked seventh in the AVCA Coaches Poll — is preparing to compete in an NCAA Tournament regional.
Nebraska is a No. 2 seed set to face No. 3 seed (and ninth-ranked) Oregon in the Louisville Regional on Thursday.
“Good afternoon, we’re obviously fired up to keep playing,” Coach John Cook said during Nebraska’s Wednesday press conference. “There are only 16 teams practicing today … We’re fired up, Oregon’s a great team, and this is going to be a great challenge for us which we’re excited for.”
This year’s Sweet 16 will be a little different than past years’, however. Nebraska and Oregon will get the party started bright and early on Thursday with a 10 a.m. CT (11 a.m. local) start time, something Cook wasn’t thrilled about as he expressed on Sports Nightly Monday. Happ or not, the Huskers have been preparing for the early start by holding morning practices this week and Cook said the players have handled it well.
“We haven’t had a bad practice all year,” Cook said. “So it doesn’t matter when we practice or when we go, they’ve been great. Today really didn’t feel like the morning practice; yesterday did because we started at eight and so I think they’ve adjusted really well.”
Playing in Louisville means senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord is back in her home state of Kentucky. The Lexington native already made one return home when Nebraska played at Kentucky during the nonconference, but her cheering section won’t be quite as large against Oregon.
“Unfortunately, because we are playing on a Thursday, a lot of my family cannot get off work,” Hord said. “They will be there on Friday though, which is good. It is amazing playing near home because I do have that opportunity of friends and family getting to come see. Being so far away in Nebraska it’s a little bit harder to make it to those trips. I am extremely thankful to be here.”
The Ducks are 25-5 and beat Loyola Marymount and Arkansas to punch their ticket to Louisville. Oregon’s strength is on offense where the Ducks are fourth in the country in hitting percentage at .298. Cook said the Huskers have seen teams like Oregon during the regular season.
“They try to go really fast, they fly around, they try to beat you with speed and tempo is what’s happening,” Cook said. “They have really dynamic, athletic hitters and a very dynamic, athletic setter. What we have to do is slow that down. Again, a lot of that will come down to serve and pass, so that’s another big part of it. But there are teams in the Big Ten that have played like that, Maryland reminds me of one of them. We played some teams in nonconference that play like they do.”
All-Pac-12 setter Hannah Pukis, a transfer from Washington State, averaged 11.23 assists per set (10th in the country) in her first season as a Duck.
“Pretty quick,” Cook said. “She does a really nice job with the system they’re running. She’s very consistent with her sets. That’s the thing that stood out to me. She’s very consistent. Sometimes when you run a faster-paced offense, the setters can miss a lot. She’s very, very consistent.”
Mimi Colyer, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, is Pukis’ favorite target, averaging 4.19 kills per set on .271 hitting. Fellow All-Pac-12 outside hitter Brooke Nuneviller wasn’t far behind, averaging 4.05 kills per set on .293 hitting and 2.91 digs per set. Senior opposite Gloria Mutiri was a distant third with 2.22 kills per set on .342 hitting as the two left sides have accounted for nearly 60% of Oregon’s attacks this season. Nebraska’s blockers will have to be on point to slow down the high-powered Oregon attack.
“I don’t want to give away my secrets just in case they are listening, but you just have to be really disciplined because they are extremely athletic,” Hord said. “They are not as big as we are used to. That calls for a more disciplined block and really trusting your training, as we’ve mentioned before. So, that’s all I am going to say.”
Blocking is only the second option for disrupting an offense, though. Option one is serving tough to keep the other team out of system.
“We served the crap out of it today in practice,” Cook said. “Now, we’ve got to do that in the match. There are days that I feel sorry for the passers because we serve so dang tough. You’ve got to do it under the lights when they are keeping score. When you get to this point of the year, a lot of it comes down to that.”
Top-seeded Louisville is facing No. 4 Baylor as the entire regional went chalk outside of Kansas knocking off seventh-seeded Miami in the first round in Omaha. Regardless of who wins Thursday’s matches, Saturday’s Regional Final should produce some championship-caliber volleyball.
“Where college volleyball is at now, when you get to the Sweet 16, you’re playing great teams,” Cook said. “Any of these regionals could produce a national champion. It is just very competitive now and you just can’t look at like, ‘Oh, I got a great draw here or a great draw here.’ I look at some of these other ones and I think, ‘Oh, I’m glad we aren’t there.’ Then I looked at ours; I wish we weren’t here. You could drive yourself crazy with that. The bottom line is you’re going to play great teams wherever you are. There are no easy draws anymore, those days of everybody comparing ‘they have a really tough regional, they have an easy one’ are over. It’s too competitive anymore, there are too many good teams.”
Thursday morning’s match will be televised on ESPNU with Eric Frede and Katie George on the call. Louisville and Baylor will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first match and will also be on ESPNU.
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.