After a couple days of practice, the Huskers packed up and headed north to Minneapolis on Tuesday night.
With Saturday’s sweep of Oregon, Nebraska accomplished something only five other programs have ever done — it made it to its fourth straight Final Four. On Thursday, Nebraska will try to make it back to the National Championship game for the third time in four years as it takes on a familiar foe in Illinois.
Freshman setter Nicklin Hames classified the last couple of practices as “really good” as the Huskers prepared to depart for Minneapolis.
“We’ve been coming in, trying to work our hardest, still improve,” Hames said. “I think a lot of teams this time of the year don’t come into the gym and try to improve and I think that’s our main goal — every day we come into the gym, we try to get a little bit better and I think that’s why we’ve gotten so far.”
The Huskers have won 12 straight matches, the last seven of which have been sweeps. With success has come confidence as the team pulled itself out of a midseason rut and is right back at the top of the sport.
“[Our confidence] is super high right now, but we know that every team’s going to come out right now and give us their best game and no matter what we’ve got to play our best,” Hames said. “We do have a lot of confidence because we’ve been getting a lot better. We’ve been trying to improve in the gym every day and I think it’s really showing. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to battle our hardest no matter what.”
Even though Nebraska has won two out of the last three titles, middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said the team is still out to prove something.
“Our team’s just like getting it right now,” Stivrins said. “We’re playing for the person next to us and for ourselves and we’re trying to prove a point right now that even though we won it last year, we’re not done. We can do it again this year. I think a lot of these younger girls are bringing great energy to the gym and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun in the Final Four.”
Awaiting the seventh-seeded Huskers is Illinois, the No. 3 seed in the tournament who Nebraska has already faced twice this season. The Huskers won in four at Champaign on Sept. 29, but the Illini got their revenge with a four-set win in Lincoln on Oct. 27.
“I think we’re really excited,” Stivrins said. “It’s kind of like a redemption game for us and I think we’ve grown so much as a team since then, so we’re excited to play them again.”
That Illinois loss is the last one the Huskers have suffered. Nebraska had chances to close out sets and potentially win the match, but they dropped the ball, something that they had done far too often during their rough stretch in October.
However, the Huskers bounced back from that loss to take Penn State down in five at the Devaney Center and ever since then they’ve been the ones putting teams away with the match on the line.
“I just think it’s our training and understanding what we have to do and how important those points are and how good we have to execute, how much we have to trust our training,” Coach john Cook said. “We work on that and work on it and work on it and eventually you get better at it. That’s the key is trusting our training and having a confidence within our team that we can do it. When you do it a couple times you get that confidence and then you start expecting to win those close games.”
Cook said he’s not sure if he prefers playing a familiar opponent as opposed to a brand new foe, but he did acknowledge that it is different.
“It’s a little easier; our players know their players and there’s a familiarity,” Cook said. “We’ve played them, we know what works and what doesn’t work and we have to be prepared to adjust if something changes.”
Cook said the two teams are fairly similar stylistically. That shouldn’t be too surprising considering Illinois coach Chris Tamas is in his second season in Champaign after serving as an assistant on Cook’s staff in Lincoln the previous two years.
“It’s going to be fun,” Hames said. “Chris being the head coach, he’s trash talking and we know the players, they know us. We’re tied right now so I think it’s going to be a fun, competitive game to break the tie.”
The Huskers head north with plenty of confidence, but Cook said they won’t be the only ones.
“When you get to this point, I think everybody’s feeling pretty good,” Cook said. “It’s hard to get to the Final Four, so every team’s going to go in there with a lot of confidence including ours. The key is to avoid all the distractions and all the other stuff that goes on with this thing. You can get caught up in it and you’ve got to be focused on playing great volleyball.”
One advantage that the Huskers have is a pair of senior co-captains who have been there and done that three times already — Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney. Those two have a career record of 20-1 in the postseason as Huskers.
“Having them as examples, they’ve been in these situations before,” Hames said. “Eight of us haven’t been in this situation before so I think them being there and having that record, it gives us a lot of confidence and they really make this team believe. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in the postseason so far.”
Hames is the only freshman setter at the Final Four as the other three teams feature upperclassmen at that position, but she’s no stranger to the big stage after winning five straight state titles in high school (including one as an eighth grader playing up).
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for four years and this season has been a little up and down but I think it’s been a huge learning experience for me and I really grew as a person and as a player throughout this whole time,” Hames said. “I’ve never been on such a good team where I know everyone has my back. It’s really lived up to my expectations and I’m super excited to play in the Final Four. I was there last year, I watched them in the semifinal match and in the final match. Being able to say I’m going to be on that stage playing this time is just awesome.”
The Huskers head into the Final Four with a 28-6 record with five of those losses coming in the span of seven games in October. Around that time, I don’t think anyone saw “Final Four” in that team’s future. However, the Huskers kept on working to dig themselves out of that rut and they stuck with it, and now they’re one of just four teams left standing.
“Probably the thing that I’m most proud of with this group is that they’ve stayed with the process, which is the resiliency, building that resiliency,” Cook said. “They have worked hard, they’ve learned how we train, they’ve learned how we play, they’ve learned to trust each other. It’s just a process. They’ve stayed with it, they’ve been really good about staying with it. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to get discouraged and question it but they stayed with it and now they’re in the Final Four.”
Stanford and BYU will play in the first semifinal on Thursday at 6 p.m. CT with the Huskers and Illini to follow at 8 p.m. or later depending on the first match’s result. Both matches will be on ESPN.