Nebraska released its 2019 volleyball schedule on Thursday and as is par for the course with a John Cook squad, it certainly isn’t lacking in tests for the Huskers.
Seven of Nebraska’s nine nonconference opponents made the NCAA Tournament last season and seven of those nine games will be played at the Devaney Center as the Huskers only hit the road for a two-game trip out West in September.
One change worth noting is the Huskers will be participating in just one tournament this season as opposed to the three or four events they were part of over the past handful of years. Gone is the VERT Challenge featuring Texas, Oregon and Florida. The Nebraska Invite, one of two tournaments the Huskers usually host, isn’t happening this year either.
What remains is the Americas Players Challenge in mid-September. This year’s field includes Denver, High Point and Loyola Marymount, all teams that won their leagues and qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season.
The Huskers open their season with a tough test right out of the gates as they host in-state rival Creighton. The Huskers beat the Jays in a five-set thriller at CHI Health Center Omaha last season. The Jays lost their stud outside hitters in Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth from last year’s team but they bring the rest of their rotation back including libero Brittany Witt, setter Madelyn Cole and middle blocker/right side hitter Megan Ballinger and add a dynamic outside hitter to the mix in Keeley Davis. She redshirted behind Winters and Kloth last season but should be an instant impact player next year.
The gem of the schedule is a national championship rematch with the Stanford Cardinal on Sept. 18 in Lincoln. Stanford pulled out a 15-12 fifth-set win over the Huskers to take the 2018 national title. Not that the clash of volleyball titans needs any extra juice, but there is that whole white board drawing thing that came out after the match as well. Stanford lost a pair of talented middle blockers but will bring almost everyone else back led by 2018 AVCA Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer.
This isn’t a one-year thing, however. The Huskers will face the Cardinal in each of the next five years as the two teams—along with Kentucky and Louisville—agreed to participate in a tournament that will last for four years. The other two schools are led by former Nebraska assistant coaches in Kentucky’s Craig Skinner and Louisville’s Dani Busboom Kelly.
Nebraska’s one road trip will see them travel to San Diego, California, where the Huskers will play both Arizona and San Diego, two more NCAA Tournament teams. San Diego advanced to the third round before falling to Wisconsin in three sets while Arizona fell to Missouri in the first round in Lincoln. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun’s home town of Encinitas is just a half-hour drive up the California coast from San Diego.
Neither UCLA nor Wichita State—the final two teams on the nonconference slate—made the NCAA Tournament last season as both finished below .500 but both are traditionally strong programs within their leagues.
As for Nebraska’s Big Ten schedule, it’s fairly balanced. Six other teams from the league made the tournament last season. The Huskers will play two of them (Wisconsin and Purdue) home-and-away, two of them once each at home (Michigan and Penn State) and two of them once each on the road (Illinois and Minnesota).
Just like with the nonconference, there’s no easing into things as the Huskers will travel to Illinois on Sept. 27 to open league play. The Illini lost Jordyn Poulter, who Cook considered the best setter in the country, as well as a defensive force at the net in middle blocker Ali Bastianelli, but former Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas brings back his top attacker in Jacqueline Quade as well as a strong supporting cast. The Illini made it to the Final Four last season and took the Huskers to five sets before Nebraska pulled out the win.
The toughest road trip of every season—the swing through Minnesota and Wisconsin—will come during the penultimate week of the regular season, Nov. 22 and 23, which could set up some drama if any of those three teams are in the mix for the conference title down the stretch.
Wisconsin had just one senior on its roster last season and brings almost everybody back including 6-foot-8 middle Dana Rettke and dynamic outside hitter Madison Duello. Minnesota lost star setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson but brings back almost all of its firepower including hitters Stephanie Samedy and Lexi Hart and middles Regan Pittman, Adanna Rollins and Taylor Morgan.
The trip to Penn State on Nov. 2 will be tough. The Nittany Lions fell off a bit last season after graduating an outstanding senior class, but three of their top five attackers were freshmen who now have a full year under their belts.
Nebraska has a lot to replace from last year’s team with the graduation of program legends Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, but based on Nebraska’s spring exhibition against another 2018 NCAA Tournament team in Colorado State—a 3-1 win—the Huskers look to be in good shape. Freshmen Madi Kubik (and outside hitter) and Kenzie Knuckles (a libero) look to be instant impact players and the Huskers have a strong returning cast around them led by a terrific setter in Nicklin Hames.
Nebraska has the talent to make another deep run in 2019, and the schedule should get them ready to do just that.