It’s regionals week for the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, and this year’s tournament brings change to the format. Teams that advance to the regional final will get a day off before returning to the court, a change Coach John Cook called “awesome.”
“I’ve been complaining about that a long time,” Cook said. “If you’d like some history lessons, I can give you some history lessons. Back in the mid ‘90s when I was at Wisconsin, we finished at 12:30 at night and had to play 1 o’clock the next day. So you talk about student-athlete welfare, I don’t think that puts athletes in — but anyway, that’s when I first started complaining about we need to have a day in between. I’ve heard for years, ‘Oh, it costs money, it cost money.’
“Well, I’m glad glad we’re finally there, that we can treat these high level athletes and give them a day in between, and that’s the way it should be. Now, if we can get rid of the sport court while we’re here so we’re not going back to club tournaments, that would be even better.”
Lauren Stivrins is looking to make it to her fifth regional final, and though the Huskers are used to some tough turnarounds, she said she and her teammates are grateful for the opportunity to have a day off should they advance.
“Our Big Ten schedule used to be a lot of Friday, Saturday matches, but this year, it was a bit different,” Stivrins said. “So it’s kind of nice to have that day in between. I know I really appreciate it and a few of the other girls do too. That that rest is necessary in order for us to compete at our highest level. So I think it’s a step in the right direction for sure.”
Cook said the change is “huge” because it levels the playing field and eliminates quick turnarounds for teams that get stuck in the late time slot in the regional semifinals, which includes the Huskers this year.
“I think it’s only fair for the athletes to make it equal for all teams, because we’ve been on the short end of that stick several times where you play late and then play early,” Cook said.
For the day off to matter for the Huskers, they’ll have to take care of business in the regional semifinal first, and they’re going to see some familiar faces on the other side of the net on Thursday night. The second semifinal in the Austin Regional will feature an all-Bg Ten showdown between the Huskers and Illinois (22-11), coached by former Husker assistant Chris Tamas.
Nebraska swept the Illini twice during the regular season, but the Huskers haven’t spent too much time looking back at those matches.
“We’ve kind of just talked about staying fresh and looking at them as if this is the first time playing them, not looking over them, not kind of going back to their old games,” Kenzie Knuckles said. “You’re scouting them like it’s brand new team. So we’re excited for it.”
The Illini knocked off seventh-seeded Kentucky, last season’s national champion, in four sets last weekend to advance to the Sweet 16. Illinois hit .331 behind 27 kills from Terry Raina and 17 from Megan Cooney.
“They played great against Kentucky, so we’re going to get their A game. and we’ve got our hands full,” Cook said. “Like Kenzie said, it’s a new season basically and it doesn’t really matter what happened in the Big Ten. That result and those matches and the finish in the Big Ten is over with. It’s a three-week season right now and we’re in week two of it.”
The first semifinal on Thursday will feature No. 2 Texas, the regional host and last year’s runner-up, against No. 15 Washington. Cook said the Austin Regional has the feel of a Final Four.
“You have the Pac-12 champ,” Cook said. “We did have the SEC champ, who Illinois knocked off, and also Illinois did beat Purdue in our conference, who knocked off Wisconsin twice. And then you’ve got the Big 12 champion and then the second-place finisher in the in the Big Ten, which has six of the 16 teams still in the tournament. So I think that’s a pretty high-quality field right there, and I don’t think any regionals can say that.”
Cook joked that the team’s biggest challenge will be finding a way to stay awake late enough for their 8:30 p.m. CT start, but senior Nicklin Hames said their schedule has prepared them to face anything.
“I think it’s exciting, but I also think we prepare for it the entire year,” Hames said. “That’s how our Big Ten schedule is. Every week, it’s a grind, it’s a battle. So I think when we get to this point in the tournament, we’re pretty prepared for that level of excitement and ready to compete when the game time comes.”
Texas (26-1) and Washington (26-4) will begin at 6:30 p.m. with the Huskers and Illini to follow 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.