COLUMBUS, Ohio – You knew it was Nebraska’s time to practice at Nationwide Arena when the music started. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, all the other artists and songs you would expect to keep a practice active and light. John Cook is a believer in the power of music. It always accompanies Nebraska’s practice sessions. No need to change that just because an NCAA Semifinal match against rival Texas is on tap for Thursday.
Cook’s a believer in routine, too, and that can be tough to maintain thanks to everything that comes with a trip to the Final Four.
“This is not a typical Big Ten match or a typical NCAA match,” Cook said. “There’s all this other stuff going on.
“I mean, it’s really hectic. And it almost feels like volleyball’s — it is the focus for us. We’re trying to keep it the focus but you’ve got all this other stuff going on. We’ve got to do a good job managing that.”
Nebraska seemed to be handling the spectacle of another Final Four just fine. Players sang along to the music. Justine Wong-Orantes deftly juggled a ball with her feet during practice. Must’ve been a pretty good soccer player in addition to an All-American libero. Near the end of practice, Nebraska’s sports information staff set up a small camera on the court and the Huskers’ three best servers tried to hit it with a serve for a video you’ll probably see somewhere soon enough. Wong-Orantes nicked it on her second serve, then drilled it on try number five.
This is sort of Nebraska volleyball all the time, so why wouldn’t it be the same here?
Maybe that’s the secret. No matter the opponent, no matter the stakes, have fun and stick to the plan.
When asked what he wanted opposing teams to say after facing Nebraska, Cook mentioned defense and discipline, two staples, but then he also said he hoped his teams were known as teams that “do all the skills well and we’re just a really good volleyball team that has fun and is playing together.”
Fun? Cook said that fun wasn’t a big part of earlier trips to the Final Four. Pressure was more like it, but the Huskers’ rally from two sets down – and two points from elimination – against Penn State seemed to serve as a pressure valve in this tournament.
“I think it’s definitely a different feel,” Cook said. “It’s hard to put in words or recreate how much pressure we felt on that Penn State match.”
Not even Texas, an old Big 12 rival that can play the revenge card after losing the national-championship match to Nebraska last year, is changing that.
“Texas and Nebraska are always the big rivalry,” middle blocker Amber Rolfzen said. “They always will be. It’s always a really great game. And this just comes down to — I think we don’t necessarily focus on the other side that much. It’s always if you got your side together, good team chemistry, you play hard, good effort, you can always have a good outcome. But we’re ready for the Texas match tomorrow.”
The song playing near the end of the Huskers’ practice was Kristina Debarge’s “Goodbye,” which samples Steam’s famous “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”
We won’t know until tomorrow if that song will apply to Texas or Nebraska, but on Wednesday in Columbus it didn’t look like the Huskers were too worried about it.
Actually, it looked like Nebraska hadn’t even considered it.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.