Coach John Cook had to send the text message his players least want to see last Thursday morning.
“Huskers Code Red.”
The means bad news is on the way. The team started using that phrase early during the pandemic to signify that their plans were about to change. Last week, it meant Nebraska wasn’t going to be heading to Madison later in the day.
Nebraska’s road trip to No. 1 Wisconsin got called off because of COVID-19 issues within the Badger program. The team paused activates soon after.
“What happened was Michigan State had an outbreak and they had played Wisconsin, so Wisconsin was under the alert,” Cook said. “They were PCR testing every day, because they played on Sunday, I believe. Sure enough, on day five, Wisconsin had a couple positives and that was it.”
That text spoiled a top-five match-up. After getting swept three times by the Badgers last season and coming off their best performance of the season against Minnesota the previous Sunday, the Huskers were looking forward to testing themselves against the top-ranked team in the country.
“Obviously we were very disappointed,” setter Nicklin Hames said. “It’s hard when you train really hard all week and you’re really excited about a match and then it gets canceled. But we’ve tried to prepare this whole season to be prepared for situations like that. So I think we were OK with it but of course we were bummed and we were like ‘Oh, can we play someone else?’ We just wanted to compete that weekend.”
Cook said he inquired with the conference and other teams that had their weekend series canceled, but the logistics just didn’t work out with such short notice. It’s more difficult for teams that have to travel by plane to set up last-minute replacement matches.
“This is the life of COVID,” Cook said. “Over half the Big Ten didn’t play. You just have to deal with it. We tried to make the best of it over the weekend and will try to get back into a routine this week.”
This is the second time this season Nebraska has had to deal with a series cancellation because of issues in other programs. Last time — week two — Nebraska held a full scrimmage to give the families that traveled to Lincoln a chance to see the Huskers play, even if it was against themselves. This time Cook stuck with traditional practices while still mixing it up enough to keep the players engaged.
“We try to do some fun things, different things just to keep their interest,” Cook said. “That’s number one. Number two, I think they’ve handled it very well. This group loves to train. They love coming to practice. I never think that they don’t want to be there. I can give you years and dates that are imprinted in my brain of days of practice and times when they didn’t want to be there. But this group seems to really, really enjoy it. I think it’s how we run our practices and how we structure it. They’re learning, they’re getting better, they’re having fun, they’re getting challenged.”
Cook also said practice can be an escape for the players who have mostly been stuck at home this year with online classes and limited interaction with other people because of the pandemic.
“I think they look forward, this is like an escape to come here and get away from everything and get something accomplished with other people,” Cook said.
The pause came at a difficult time considering how well the Huskers played in their last match, but Hames said she thinks some of the things they learned in that match will outweigh any potential rust that could disrupt their momentum.
“I think there is some worry, but I think our team has finally gotten over that hump and we’ve started to implement what we’ve been doing in practice in the game and I think we want to keep that edge that we have,” Hames said. “We’re going to be really focused and excited to play this weekend to show that we’re going to continue with that momentum.”
Barring any more “Huskers Cod Red” texts, the Huskers will hit the road again this weekend for a pair of matches in Champaign. The Illini, led by former Husker assistant coach Chris Tamas, are 2-6 this season and have had two of their last three series postponed.
“They have been running a 6-2,” Cook said. “They have some big, physical hitters. They lead the conference in aces per games, so they’re always a very good serving team. There’s a start right there. We’re going to have to handle their serve and they’ve got some big arms that we’re going to have to deal with, and we’re going there. A typical Big Ten weekend and we have to be ready to go int here and compete.”
Friday’s match is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network. Saturday’s match is set for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network Plus.
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.