The 2020–21 season came to an end in the regional final round of the NCAA Tournament as No. 5 Nebraska fell to No. 4 Texas in four sets on Monday afternoon.
Jacob Padilla was in the building for the battle between two former conference rivals and has a few more storylines for Husker fans to reflect back on at the end of a unique season.
Better Than Before?
Eventual national runner-up ended Nebraska’s 2019 NCAA Tournament run with a sweep in the regional final round. This year’s team saw its season end at the same point, but Coach John Cook said the Huskers definitely made strides from last season.
“I think we’re better than we were a year ago,” Cook said. “But we haven’t had the matches to build the toughness and the mindset you have to have to win these kinds of matches. I think that really hurt us today because we have to execute better than Texas. We just haven’t had those matches and I think it showed today. Texas definitely took advantage.”
Nebraska went 16-3 overall this spring, which is fewer matches than the Huskers play in a typical conference season. Factor in nonconference and NCAA Tournament matches and the Husker are used to playing between 30 and 40 times in a year. The Huskers had half that to settle in and find themselves this season.
Nebraska also only played two ranked teams during the regular season, splitting matches against both Minnesota and Ohio State. The Husker hadn’t really seen a team like Texas before Monday.
“They’re hitting big numbers this year,” Cook said. “There’s a reason for it. And I think the other thing that really hurts us is we haven’t played physical teams like that since Ohio State. Ohio State is a physical team. All the other teams we played since then … six matches have not been that physical except for [Baylor outside hitter Yossiana] Pressley yesterday was pretty physical. But Texas has got two Pressleys and a couple really physical middles. It’s a whole ‘nother dimension to deal with, but thats typical Texas. That’s how they always are.”
Nebraska certainly showed overall improvement in some of the areas the cost them in last year’s tournament, namely serving and passing, but they weren’t sharp enough in those areas on Monday to beat the Longhorns. I would have liked to see what this team would have looked like at the end of a full-length season that included a typical number of difficult tests, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Nicklin Hames showed some emotion during her portion of the press conference when describing the mood in the locker room after the loss, but Cook said it was pretty quiet in there.
“It’s been a weird season,” Cook said. “It was just quiet and there wasn’t much emotion. Just this whole thing, I told them I’m really proud of how they’ve handled it because they’ve handled it a lot better than I have. They’ve done a tremendous job all the way since fall of handling this and the start-stops.”
This weird pandemic-impacted season threw one final curveball the Huskers’ way on Monday morning as the Huskers match was very much in doubt into the afternoon.
“This morning we have four positive antigen tests, so we have four people that have to go get PCR tests,” Cook said. “I don’t know what the NCAA did today or the testing people did, but we haven’t had one positive antigen [test] the entire year and all of a sudden we get four. What do you think that does when you go get locked in a room and you sit for an hour? Stuff like that. You’re playing, you’re not playing; there was a point this morning we weren’t even sure if we were going to play or were going to get canceled. I know Texas had a positive as well.
“It’s mind games and they’ve done a really good job of handling it. I’ve seen stuff this year that I have never seen before with injuries, with emotional stuff, and it’s just been a really interesting year. I hope we can have a normal fall season.”
The Huskers sacrificed a lot this season to keep themselves isolated and healthy, and had to endure three different season disruptions because of COVID-19 issues in other programs. Fortunately the Huskers were cleared to play their match, but that kind of the scare on the final day of the season is a fitting way for things to end considering how the year has gone for Nebraska and so many others.
Home-Court Advantage At Last
Nebraska has arguably the best home-court advantage in the country, but it took until their 19th game of the season to truly get a taste of what it feels like. Nebraska earned the opportunity to play on the main court at CHI Health Center Omaha, and that means they got to play in front of the biggest crowd they’ve seen all year. Official attendance in the box score was 4,154, and it seemed like about 4,000 of that was Nebraska fans, even if they were spread out throughout the arena.
“This was the first match it felt like ‘Oh, we’re having a really volleyball match and there’s fans here,’” Cook said. “I think both teams were really excited to play and there was some atmosphere. We could feel them and they were willing us, but also when you give up four points, you shank four balls, you don’t even get them over the net, it takes the wind out of the atmosphere. If we could have kept it close, I think those fans could have willed us to some points and possibly a win.
“Here’s what I realized: I never thought how much we would miss having full arenas and big crowds, whether you’re home or on the road. You really miss that and it’s hard to describe, it’s an empty feeling. I appreciate the fans that came out today and cheered us. The were awesome as always, but man do we miss it and hope it can get back to normal.”
Monday was the first time Nebraska has lost in that arena since I’ve been covering the team. The Huskers were 4-0 to that point with two of those coming in the 2015 NCAA Tournament (the other two were obviously against Creighton). Hames talked about how disappointed the team was about missing out on the chance to follow in the 2015 team’s footsteps and play for a national title in Omaha.
The result might not have been what they were hoping for, but I’m glad the Huskers, especially the seniors, got a chance to play in front of their fans at least one time this season.
Speaking of those seniors, Nebraska has four of them, and all four could choose to return for one more season because of the pandemic. John Cook said he’ll sit down and have meetings to discuss the future with his players later this week.
“Some of them are going to go home and do finals,” Cook said. “We’re wrapping up the semester here. Some of them are finished, or pretty much I think except for a final. So we’ll have meetings this week and see where we’re at. We’ve tried to not make that a focus or much of a conversation, so those will happen this week.”
Lauren Stivrins redshirted her first season in Lincoln, so this was her fifth year of college. After missing Nebraska’s regional semifinal match against Baylor on Sunday with an undisclosed injury, Stivrins gutted it out on Monday and finished with seven kills on .357 hitting. That dropped her percentage from .476 to .471, dropping her below Tracy Stalls’ single-season program record of .473. Stivrins will have to settle for second — bumping down her own 2018 season when she hit .421.
After playing a big role her first three season, Jazz Sweet lost her starting job at opposite hitter this year before getting it back thanks to a season-ending injury to Riley Zuhn.
Defensive specialist Hayley Densberger, a walk-on out of Malcolm, Nebraska, has seen her playing time fluctuate throughout her career but has been ready whenever Cook has called her number.
Finally, outside hitter Lexi Sun has only spent the last three years in Lincoln after starting her career at Texas. Unlike her fellow seniors, she was not on the team when the Huskers won the national championship in 2017.
Nebraska’s highly-touted 2021 recruiting class includes six new players, but Cook said Nebraska would still be able to honor the scholarship of any senior that wishes to return. Any of the four choosing to return would be a big boost for next year’s team, but the Huskers should be in good shape regardless.
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.