The Nebraska volleyball team is getting set to travel halfway across the world this weekend to experience new cultures, bond together and play a little volleyball along the way.
The NCAA allows programs to take foreign trips every four years and this summer, the Huskers are heading to Asia.
“We leave Saturday morning, early,” Coach John Cook told assembled media inside he volleyball team’s player lounge on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re going to go to Japan for a week and China for about 10 days, so it’s a 17-day trip. If you look at the other international trips going with our men’s and women’s basketball teams, they go for about 10 days. The reason we go for 17 days is it’s a long ways to go, it takes a long time to acclimate, so we want to make sure we get a lot out of it.
“When you go to Italy, Spain, Slovenia, some of these countries that other teams are going to volleyball-wise, those tend to be more like vacations. We tend to approach this as we want these guys to go through an experience that is going to stress them, get them uncomfortable, and they’re going to have to learn to grind a little bit and be away from home and be way out of their comfort zone for 17 days. So it creates a little bit more opportunity for that to happen as opposed to 10 days — you’re in, you’re out pretty quick.”
The Huskers will play seven matches against some experienced club teams along the way and victory will not come easily, something Cook has tried to relate to his team.
“The other thing that I think is important to stress and that I’ve stressed with our team is in 2000, we didn’t win a match, in 2006 we didn’t win a match; both of those teams won national championships; 2010 we won our first match over there and in 2014 we actually won two matches,” Cook said. “So we’ve gotten better and closer to these Asian teams. However, on this trip, we are going to play the No. 1 and 2 teams in the pro league in Japan … In the V.League, there are several players on the Olympic team who play in the V.League and international players from all over the world, so it’s a very good league.
“From there, we’re going to go to China and we start in Shanghai. Shanghai finished, I believe, third in the Chinese League; Jordan Larson just signed to play with them next fall and winter, so that just shows you the level of the quality of club team there. From there, we’re going to take an overnight train — so you’re on the train all night, you arrive in the city of Tianjin in the morning. That’s one of the highlights that we’ve done in the past that our players really like because it’s so different and we basically have a whole train car to ourselves for our whole travel party … Tianjin finished second in the Chinese pro league.
“We’ve also been there before, they’re a great host and their junior team has actually been to Lincoln twice. That’s a great place to go and train and we’re excited about that. We’ll finish that trip with playing Beijing who won the championship. Kelsey Robinson actually played for Beijing two years ago … So we’re going to challenge our team. Our record will not be great but we are going to learn how to play some great volleyball and play against teams that play great volleyball.”
The Huskers know they’ll be underdogs throughout the trip, but they’re no strangers to facing tough competition.
“I used to play [Lauren Stivrins’] team all the time, and they were pretty good, they always won,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “But you just have to go in it with a mindset that you know anything can happen. I feel like we’ve trained hard and we’ve been preparing for it so I feel like going into it we know we’re playing the top teams but I don’t think we’re nervous or scared about it. We’re just going in ready to fight.”
After the competition comes to an end, the Huskers will have a little time to enjoy themselves and see the sights before returning home. Cook said they’ll take two days to sight-see including stops at the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Silk Street, “the most important place to go in China,” according to Cook (that’s where they’ll get to go shopping).
The Huskers could have taken this trip last year, but Cook decided to hold off until this year as he wanted to get his large 2019 recruiting class, which includes six players, on campus first. The NCAA has changed a rule restricting true freshmen who did not enroll early from taking part in the trip. Therefore, all 16 players should be making the trip.
The tour will challenge the Huskers — with 10 underclassmen on the roster — both on and off the court.
“The first challenge is playing with that volleyball is a little bit different; it moves a lot more so learning how to control that ball is a big challenge,” Cook said. “We’ll have 10 practices training with that ball. The second things is they’re pros. They know how to play, they play for a living, they don’t make errors, they hit the ball hard, they’re very smart, they have very high volleyball IQs, they serve and pass really well, all the Asian teams do. So when you go and play those teams, you’re just going to get better by playing against them because you’re going to learn things that we probably can’t recreate here.
“And then the stress of traveling gets us out off our comfort zone … We’ll be playing 12 hours opposite of what they’re used to, so adjusting to the jet lag and the international travel is also a really big deal. We will stay in some nice hotels but we also stay in the dorms in Tianjin and Shanghai, we stay in the dorms where those players also stay so it’s like staying in college dorms and you eat in the cafeteria and in Japan, they don’t really have that. In between the morning and afternoon sessions, we will take naps on the tatami mats, which is a Japanese bed … We’ll definitely experience some Asian culture, and learn how to eat with chop sticks.”
The Huskers have previously taken foreign tours in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and each time Cook has chosen Asia. He said China and Japan offer better competition as the teams over there continue to train through the summer unlike a lot of other countries.
“Asia is about as far out of their comfort zone as they can get with food, accommodations, the showers are all lower because everything’s built for small people, it’s just built for a different world,” Cook said. “And then to see how crowded and polluted and all those things dealing with that. But that main thing is those Asian teams want to win and they don’t want to lose to us and they’re in full-time training mode all year round.”
Cook and the players were sporting T-shirts designed by junior Lexi Sun featuring a pig with “Nebraska Volleyball” over the top and a saying in Chinese characters about playing together and fighting spirit. It is the Year of the Pig in China.
“One of the things I like about Year of the Pig is we talk about goal-setting and goal-setting, you really have to commit to setting goals and commit to those goals,” Cook said. “In this day and age, commitment to these kids doesn’t really mean a whole lot. If you just look at the transfers and who leaves and who does what. We give them an example because we live in Nebraska: if they had bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning, the chicken that laid those eggs kind of made a commitment, but the pig made a total commitment. We want our players to be like the pig.”
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.