Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament run officially begins on Monday night when the Huskers will head up to Omaha.
Because of the cancellation of the Penn State series, it’s been more than two weeks since Nebraska last played volleyball, and Coach John Cook decided to give his team some time off before ramping back up to full practices this week.
“Having last week off it was nice; we’ve been going since probably August, so it was nice to have a little time off but still work out, come in the gym every other day,” Nicklin Hames said. “But it was nice to have a week off and I think it really made us excited about this week of practice and then going into the tournament.”
While the time off to recharge their batteries and get ready for one final push is valuable for the Huskers, there’s no substitute for competing against other teams, and Nebraska is going to have to work off the rust quickly on Thursday no matter who it faces.
“It’s hard when you don’t play a match for a while,” Hames said. “It’s just a different feeling than practice, different emotions, different stressors, so playing matches is super important. I think we’re just going to really focus going into our first match with a lot of energy, coming out strong, because I know we’ve struggled with that, especially after a little bit of a break, we kind of come out slow and then we go down 7-0 or something tike that. So just trying to come out strong for whoever we play, especially for that first match since we haven’t played in a while.”
Nebraska will have one last chance to fine-tune things on its own practice court on Monday before the team makes the drive up I-80. The Huskers will be staying in the Marriott near the CHI Health Center. They’ll undergo COVID-19 testing when they arrive and then again on Tuesday, and if everyone checks out they’ll get a chance to hit the practice court on Wednesday ahead of their first game on Thursday, against the winner of Texas State and Utah Valley.
Nebraska will have to stay isolated on Tuesday, but Cook said he’s trying to avoid the team just sitting around in hotel rooms all day.
“We’re trying to figure that out,” Cook said. “Our strength coach and Lindsay [Peterson] are talking with the Marriott where we’re staying and seeing what kind of meeting room we have there so we can do something. We just can’t sit around all day. We’ll try to get out and go outside somewhere. We just don’t want to sit in a hotel all day. I know what results that brings, so we’re trying to be creative on that.”
Regardless of whatever solutions Cook and his staff come up with, the Huskers are still going to have a lot of downtime before their first match, and after the match as well if they advance. Fortunately, the unique schedules in the Big Ten this season and overall circumstances created by the pandemic have given the Huskers plenty of chances to grow closer together and find ways to keep themselves entertained.
“We love to play board games and different types of games, so I’m guessing we’ll probably do that,” Hames said. “I know some people on our team like to make TikToks, so maybe we can come up with a fun TikTok before we play. But besides that, I think we’ll all just hang out, do homework. It’s going to be weird having that amount of time before we play. I’m guessing the coaches will come up with some things for us to do as well.”
If the Huskers win on Thursday, they’ll have a few days before the regional round begins, and they will only be able to spend so much time practicing, going over game plans and doing class work. That’s where the games will come into play.
“We play a bunch of different games, not as many board games, but we play like Catch Phrase, we’ve done Charades, card games; you name it, we’ve done it,” Hames said. “It’s so funny because everyone is so competitive. It’s a great time and it’s honestly just fun to be there and watch everyone and interact and get super competitive and get in each other’s faces.”
The Huskers are hoping to see that competitiveness on the court as well, obviously. However, there’s one potential matchup Hames is hoping for in the third round that would require a significant upset — Pepperdine, where her younger sister, Kayleigh, is an outside hitter.
“My sister’s actually in our bracket,” Hames said. “She plays UMBC I think and then she would play Baylor. So my parents are coming for the first and second rounds. I don’t know who they’re going to cheer for; probably her, she’s probably the favorite child, honestly. I’m excited that we’re in the same bracket and that her team made it. They’ve had a really great season. We’ve already had group chats with our family. My uncle was texting like who’s going to cheer for who, trash talking. So it will be interesting to see if we get to play them.”
Potential matchups in later rounds is still a long ways off at this point. First, the Huskers have to take care of business themselves on Thursday. Nebraska only faced two teams that qualified for the tournament all season, and the Penn State cancellation plus the injury to Riley Zuhn disrupted things for them right when it seemed like they were starting to get on a roll. It all starts on the practice floor, however, and Cook said that as long as the team plays like it practices he’ll free confident heading in.
“The question is how will we handle the environment, the layoff, the nerves of the NCAA Tournament?” Cook said. “I take some comfort in knowing that we have a pretty experienced team who’s been there before. It may take us a while to play into it, but like I said, if we can play like were training, that will be awesome. There’s just going to be so many variables that we’re not used to once we get there that we have to deal with.
“I am a little concerned about having a bye and not playing that first day. It may take us a while to kind of get our bearings a little bit and get going, but I know we’ll play hard and I think our ceiling is pretty high that we can play at if we can get things going.”
The Huskers will look to get things going on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. CT.