The final stage of a three-and-a-half month journey begins on Friday for the Nebraska volleyball team. However, if one were to ask any of the coaches or players, this season flew by in the blink of an eye.
“For me at least, this season went by a lot faster than a lot of other seasons and I really think that’s just because we’re living in the moment and we’re not focusing on a loss or a bad game or a big win or something like that,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “We’re just focusing on our next opponent. I think that’s just made it fly by and we’ve just had so much fun this year.”
Coach John Cook said he feels the same way.
“I cannot believe we are in the tournament,” Cook said. “It’s just mind-boggling to me. This season has flown by … This year has just been a great climb of a team on a journey and they’re having fun, we have a lot of new people in new roles, we have freshmen playing; it’s just a new adventure for them and that’s why I think it’s gone by so fast.”
Cook said the biggest reason for that feeling is the lack of expectations weighing the team down compared to last season when the huskers entered the season No. 1 in the country following their 2015 national championship.
Last year, Nebraska was the hunted. This year, after just missing out on a top-four national seed and the right to play at home through the first four rounds, Nebraska is the hunter, and they’re going to use that underdog mentality to rive them throughout the tournament.
“We don’t even get to host, so I feel like there are people out there who still don’t believe that we can be the best,” senior middle blocker Briana Holman said. “We know what we’re capable of so we’re just going to take it point by point and hopefully we can make it to Kansas City.”
That being said, Cook himself hasn’t been emphasizing the underdog mindset. In his mind, this Nebraska team is as good as any in the country and he said he’s been telling them that all week.
“There’s no reason why they shouldn’t see themselves as competing and winning a national championship,” Cook said. “We certainly have played the level of volleyball throughout the year to warrant us saying that, and now we’ve got to go get it. For us, this is a sprint now. It’s six matches as long as we advance. The Big Ten is over 10 weeks, that’s a longer grind. I think they’re excited to play and we don’t have the expectation that we did last year that was a pretty heavy burden. I think this team’s going to be loose and play really aggressive and go for it.”
In fact, despite losing three All-Americans from last year’s Final Four team and the championship trophy from the 2015 squad, Cook said this is the best statistical team of the last five years.
“Highest hitting percentage, biggest points against ratio, best serving team, fewest aced, we don’t really worry about digs so much, we were number one in opponent attack efficiency and really close to where we were in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “When you look at the combined stats — I looked at it over the last five years — and you look at mainly the points won and points lost, we had the biggest ratio between that — 320 points in the Big Ten … That’s the highest ever.”
All of that success comes after an immense amount of turnover from last year’s squad, from hiring a whole new coaching staff to moving returners to new roles to plugging freshmen into the lineup, Cook said this has been one of his favorite seasons as Nebraska’s head coach.
“I’m putting this in the top two of the best seasons in my career here,” Cook said. “I don’t care what happens here in the next few weeks, it’s one of the most rewarding, fulfilling seasons that I’ve had. I really was worried if I could make it through this season without getting burned out because I had to work so hard building a new staff building a new team and pulling this all together … I worked harder this year than I’ve ever worked, but through that comes out a great energy of teaching and reinventing and working with these people.”
Now, the postseason begins, and Cook said the Huskers are not approaching it any differently than they have been throughout the Big Ten season, at least as much as the situation will allow.
“I don’t think it’s any different than the Big Ten,” Cook said. “The only difference in the tournament is you’ve got all this stuff, you’ve got the NCAA Tournament people here telling you what to do like we’ve never had a match here before, you have to play by their rules and I can’t yell at the officials and neither can the players, they tell us what uniform to wear and what bench to sit on and when we can practice. It’s just a sideshow that you can’t get caught up in. We try to keep it as much in routine as we can.”
Nebraska’s first match will be against Stony Brook making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. The Seawolves went 18-12 overall and 6-6 in conference play but recorded sweeps over Albany and Binghamton (both of which beat Stony Brook twice in the regular season) in the America East Championship.
“They really like middle, and obviously you have to pass to run middle,” Hunter said. “They have a good quick attack and they run a 5-1, so a setter will be front row and she will be active.”
The Huskers match is set for 7 p.m. at the Devaney Center following Washington State and Florida State. The two winners will dance to Saturday’s match, also set for 7 p.m. at the Devaney. Hunter said she is expecting a big crowd.
“I think the fans are going to be here,” Hunter said. “We have two night games and it could potentially be our last weekend here, and for us [seniors] it’s our last matches at Devaney ever, so that’s kind of sad, but the fans always turn up no matter where we’re at or who we’re playing or what time the game is.”
Cook personally contributed to packing the arena once again as he has paid for the first 120 students who show up to get into the match.
Hey @HuskerBlock, Coach @jcook2 has an early Christmas present for you! Free 🎫🎟️ for the first 120 students on Friday (and hopefully Saturday)! #WithEachOtherForEachOther #Huskers pic.twitter.com/RPuNdQPWjc
— Husker Volleyball (@Huskervball) November 30, 2017
“My goal and my five-year plan — I can’t wait to present it to Bill Moos because he hasn’t seen it — but I always an working on a five-year plan and one of our goals is to have the best student section and a great student section here,” Cook said. “In the Coliseum, we didn’t have a student section because we never thought about it and it was sold out. We’re trying to build that and this is my way of saying thank you to them and those students that come here and support us. I was a college student and I probably wouldn’t pay to go see a volleyball match for the NCAA, but if I get a free ticket it would be pretty cool.”
Friday’s match will be televised on NET.
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.