It’s officially game week in Lincoln as Coach John Cook took to the podium for the first of his weekly Monday morning press conferences. Cook touched on the Red-White Scrimmage, preseason practice, the Husker Invitational and much more.
The Huskers sold out Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage for the second straight year and afterward the players and coaches stuck around for two hours signing autographs, making their way through a line that stretched all the way around the Devaney Center.
“I’ve never signed so many posters as I did Saturday night,” Cook said. “I think I have permanent Sharpie in my system now. Saturday night was great from the fans. It was probably a record for how long we signed but typically it’s older fans, it’s long-time season ticket-holders, people who had season tickets in the Coliseum, but what I noticed Saturday night was I saw more young kids, young families — and I always ask them where they’re from, what they’re doing — from all over the state.
“It reminded me and reinforced one of the reasons we moved to Devaney was to open up a whole new generation to Nebraska volleyball. By doubling our seats, these are the people that are coming to watch and become Husker fans. Not only was it a great Red-White Scrimmage but that was pretty special to see that.”
However, now the team’s attention turns toward matches that will actually count starting with this weekend’s Husker Invitational which will bring in-state foe Creighton as well as Baylor and UCLA to Lincoln.
The preseason No. 2 Huskers will play No. 18 Creighton on Friday and UCLA on Saturday.
“This week, we’ve got four great teams here,” Cook said. “All these teams have high expectations this year and it should be a great opening weekend tournament.”
The series against Creighton has grown more and more competitive over the last few years as Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth has elevated her program into perennial top-25 status.
“It started way back where it was a convenient match,” Cook said. “Creighton was struggling back then. Now it’s two top-10 teams in the state. I wouldn’t call it a rivalry for us. I would call it more a great celebration for volleyball in this state. You're going to have a lot of Nebraska kids out there. These are two in-state teams; what other sport has two top-10 teams in Division I? I just think it’s a great reflection on volleyball in this state. I think the next step for volleyball in this state is to get all three Division I teams in the NCAA Tournament [including Omaha]. That’s going to be a pretty big deal when that happens because we have a state of 1.9 million people and that’s not happening many places.”
With the additional practices that came with the team’s trip to Asia as well as the preseason starting three days earlier the Huskers are much further along at this point than they were a year ago.
“Instead of building the race car, we were driving the race car from day one; that’s the first thing,” Cook said. “The second thing is this preseason was three days longer than last year so it allowed us to put together a good training program in how we competed and how we trained and a good mix of fundamentals and really good competition days. I just feel like we got a lot more accomplished. We had more time and are so much farther ahead.”
Even so, Cook isn’t ready to compare this year’s team to the 2018 version until he sees how the team manages to replace its senior captains and All-Americans in Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney.
“We’ve got to wait to see when we play to see how much we miss Mikaela and Kenzie,” Cook said. “Those two guys were big parts, so we’ve got to see who’s going to step up. The Red-White’s a great opening night, opening act, but now we’ve got to see how that’s going to go under playing other teams, really good teams, and how it will play out. We’ve trained really well. Our level in the gym’s really high, probably a lot higher than last year, the competitive level, just because our freshmen have been here all summer and went to Asia, so it’s like we don’t have freshmen any more. I just feel like the level is way higher in the gym. How that transfers to matches I don’t know; we’ll all find out together.”
Finding a replacement for Maloney at libero has been a big part of preseason practice, and Cook said that battle continues to rage on.
“I think Kenzie Knuckles did a pretty solid job,” Cook said. “She’s got to get better. Hayley [Densberger] was really good too. We’ll see how this week goes. I told them ‘You better not be comfortable thinking you’ve got your spot locked up because I saw a lot of good things Saturday night.’”
In fact, Cook wasn’t ready to name any of his starters and doesn’t plan on doing so until shortly before the team’s first match.
First serve against Creighton at the Devaney Center is set for 7 p.m. on Friday and the match will be televised on NET. UCLA and Baylor will open tournament play at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Creighton will face the Bears on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and the Huskers will wrap up the tournament against the Bruins at 7 p.m., also 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.