After 14 long weeks, the NCAA Tournament has finally arrived in Lincoln.
Fifth-seeded Nebraska is hosting the first- and second-round matches at the Devaney Center on Friday and Saturday as Missouri will take on Northern Iowa and the Huskers will face Ball State.
“I think this is going to be a really competitive first and second round here at Nebraska,” Coach John Cook said. “All three teams and then us I think have all had really good seasons and are playing really good volleyball. So I think this is a tough first and second round in the NCAA Tournament. We’re looking forward to that. We’re pumped that we got sold out right away; that’s always a great feeling to know that our fans are excited about this too because I know our team will really feed off of that. We’re psyched up and it’s time to party.”
Cook said he could feel the energy around campus this week and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said that goes double for Nebraska’s locker room.
“I think everyone’s a little bit more excited because you get close to the end of the season and you’re just excited about the run that you're going to make in the tournament,” Hames said. “Last year we went all the way and it was a lot of fun, so I think everyone knows how fun it is to battle in this tournament.”
The Huskers’ journey to get back to this point has been anything but easy as they’ve had to deal with things off the court in addition to the always tough Big Ten schedule, and they’ve had to do it without any seniors on the team.
“With some of the things we had happen, with our grad manager [passing away], this has been a really challenging season, and with Capri [Davis stepping away from the team], these guys have had to really deal with a lot, more than I can remember in a long time,” Cook said. “I think that might be part of why we weren’t playing great volleyball for a while; there were some reasons behind it. But I think adversity helps build strength and pulls a team together, so I think now it’s a real strength for us for what we’ve gone through and kind of weathered the storm.”
Through all the turmoil all the wins and a few losses, Hames said the team has really come together.
“I think we’ve become a little bit more consistent,” Hames said. “This was a really new group and it was a lot of new faces and just the communication and those little things are hard to get at first. I think this team has really developed and we just have this ultimate trust in each other and this group is really close. Now when you watch us go out there, we just have so much fun playing with each other and I just think we’ve developed as a team and as a group throughout this whole season.”
The Huskers will look to continue the party at the Devaney Center. Ball State went 20-11 this season and won the MAC Tournament to punch its ticket to Lincoln.
“They do a lot of funky stuff,” Hames said. “They have a lot of hitters and they run a bunch of different patterns, so we’re going to have to be super disciplined on our block and defense and just be prepared for them to do random things and we’re going to have to adjust to it.”
Regardless of who wins the first match-up it should be someone the Huskers are familiar with. Nebraska played Missouri in the second round of the tournament last season and Northern Iowa in Omaha in 2017.
“Ball State runs a 6-2 and if you look at their stats, I think they have seven players averaging over two kills a game. I cannot remember the last time I saw that. Northern Iowa is typical Northern Iowa: they’re unorthodox, just the way they play, they’re street ballers, as I would call them. It’s like go down and play pick-up basketball, these guys are street ballers. They’re going to do really unique things, they just ball, they compete and that will be a big adjustment I think for Missouri to play them in that they’re used to more physical teams and playing more traditional volleyball. Then Missouri’s got some big hitters. They’re leading the SEC in attack efficiency so offensively they’re really good. I think it’s a really interesting first and second round. It should be good, entertaining volleyball for our fans.”
What does Nebraska need to do to make it through this weekend?
“I think we just need to play Husker volleyball and manage the emotions,” Cook said. “We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot here; teams come here and play great in the Devaney. We know that and just manage that and weather the storm and play Husker volleyball. They should feel really well prepared and it’s just managing the emotions and knowing it’s going to be a grind and a battle, and staying in the point by point. That’s probably one of the biggest things: we’ve learned how to manage that better now as opposed to the early part of our season where we were getting flustered, they were pulling within themselves when things weren’t going well, and now they’ve learned how to give to each other and focus on the next point. it sounds easy when we just sit here and talk about it, but it’s actually really hard to do.”
Cook said he doesn’t do anything different at this point in terms of motivational tactics; he doesn’t need to. The same thing that has driven the Huskers since they fell to Stanford in the fifth set of the 2018 National Championship will continue to provide all the motivation they need.
“It’s definitely been something that we’ve had in the back of our minds,” junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “That picture of Stanford winning is still hanging up in our locker room so we see it pretty much every day and still use it as motivation. I don’t think it’s something we forget about. We might have lost track of that a little bit in the beginning of the Big Ten, but we definitely turned it around and this team is competing harder than it ever has so I’m really excited to see what we can do in the tournament.”
The Huskers will take on the Cardinals at 7 p.m., or 30 minutes after the completion of the first match. Saturday’s second-round match-up for Friday’s winners is also set for 7 p.m. at the Devaney Center.
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.