Brazil has some of the best volleyball tradition in the world, and the Nebraska volleyball team got the chance to see it firsthand as the Huskers spent two weeks touring the country and experiencing the sights and sounds of Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, Saquarema and Búzios.
They also squeezed in some volleyball during the trip, going 5-0 against an assortment of Brazilian teams.
With six newcomers to the team, the timing of the team’s once-every-four-years foreign tour couldn’t have been better, on and off the court.
“I think it’s really beneficial, especially for the younger girls,” junior libero Lexi Rodriguez said. “We do have five freshmen and I think giving them kind of a little jumpstart to what this season’s going to be like was very important, just for them to kind of shake out some nerves and get used to playing at this high level. We did have a whole spring but we only had one match, and so getting to go on this trip and get even more training and more experience at the college level, I think was really important.
“And then getting a lot closer, I don’t think that you can get much closer than traveling across the country for two weeks with each other. So I think, down the road, when we’re in kind of some tough games or just like a tough part of the season, this trip will definitely be something that will help us kind of stay together.”
Coach John Cook said the team was already close, but the chance to travel to another country and spend time together in beatify location with no distraction strengthened those bonds even more. On the court, all 14 players saw extensive playing time throughout the two weeks, and that included outside hitters playing six rotations and middle blockers serving.
“Brazil plays a different style,” Cook said. “We actually played international rules; we played some matches where we played their rules, so our middles had to serve, our middles had to play defense. A couple games, I went six subs; that’s all you get. And it’s only one time in one spot … That was really good because they’ve got to do everything and it prepares them for internationally. But I think the main thing was just just being together and building relationships, and they did a fantastic job of that.”
Rodriguez said the matches in Brazil showed that no matter who is on the court, the Huskers showed they’re capable of playing high-level volleyball, as evidenced by their unbeaten record that saw the Huskers drop just three sets during the trip.
“We won a lot of close games,” Cook said. “I think we only lost one close, deuce game. So we won all the other ones. I saw them step up. We were down, I think, 24-21 in a game and we made three unreal plays to tie it up and then win it. They were big-time plays. So it’s good to see your team step up on the road like that and be able to win those.
“And then you just see it deflate — the Brazil teams can get deflated pretty quickly, they’re very emotional. They’re playing either on fire or they’re kind of moping around. And so we had a good learning lesson for us. We always want to try to be consistent in what we’re doing, whether we’re ahead or behind. So that was cool.”
The Huskers last match was their toughest, a 3-2 win against the Brazilian Military Select Team. Junior opposite hitter Merritt Beason called that match the highlight of the trip for her.
“It was super cool,” Beason said. “We were on their home base, their home field, and so a lot of people came to that game and it was really cool. Just to see how they did things in Brazil, I would say that was definitely the most special match just because it was kind of like — obviously Bob is great, but we kind of got to go to their Bob in a way, so I thought that was really special and a really cool thing to experience.”
Cook also saw a familiar face on the Military Select team — its setter, who Cook met during a trip to Mexico with USA Volleyball, perhaps in 2007 or 2008. She’s now 40 years old and still playing at a high level.
“I told our setters as we were standing there warming up, I go ‘Watch her, she is an elite international setter,’” Cook said. “After the match, we beat them and it was a great match, and I had her talk to our team about why she’s continuing to play at 40 years old and how is she taking care of herself. We’ve got a great example in Jordan [Larson] now, 36 and still playing at the highest level. And she gave a great Brazilian-themed talk with passion about how much she loves volleyball, what’s it done for her, she’s got two daughters that are playing and she still has that passion and never lose it. It just a great example for our players to see the passion that Brazil has for sport, and specifically volleyball.”
Rodriguez called Brazil one of the prettiest places she’s ever visited, praising the food and the volleyball culture and saying she would definitely make a return trip if the opportunity arose. This year was the first time Cook visited Brazil, though he’s taken teams on several overseas trips over the years, mostly to Asia. He’s seen first-hand what kind of an impact a trip like this can have on the team and its season.
“First of all, we got basically an extra month of training,” Cook said. “That right there is a huge thing. Second thing is we now know our captains, we now know what they need to work on between now and when we started in August. And I just think our level of confidence is higher because we played more — and this is a young group, it’s a very young group … I think a couple of our international trips, we won national championships after those trips, so these trips are definitely worth it.”