College volleyball is back this weekend and after three seasons on the road, the Huskers are finally hosting the VERT Challenge at the Devaney Center featuring No. 3 Texas, No. 7 Florida, No. 18 Oregon and the second-ranked Huskers.
The rotating four-team event began in 2015 in Austin Texas, moved to Eugene, Oregon, in 2016, took place in Gainesville, Florida, last season and will go down in Lincoln this year.
Nebraska will take on the Gators on Friday night and the Ducks on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be really high-level volleyball,” Coach John Cook said. “It’s a great way to open the season. Other than that, it’s just the first tournament. I’m just curious to see how we play and how we transfer what we’ve been working on in practice into a match, see how some of these young babies are going to step up.”
“Young babies” is referring to the five freshmen on the team, a few of which are pushing for starting spots from the get-go. Cook said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen from that group in practice.
“They’re crying every day in practice and they do some nice things, but it’s a whole different ball game this weekend,” Cook said. “I think the way we’ve been training, I’m really pleased. We’ve been going really hard. They’ve been competing at a really high level, so I’m expecting us to compete really hard this weekend.”
Despite all its youth, Nebraska is diving into the deep end of the pool with two of their four ranked nonconference opponents right out of the gates. Regardless of the results, Cook sees this weekend as a valuable tool for gauging where his team is at heading into the season.
“The good thing is when you play this level of teams, our players are going to learn where we need to be better,” Cook said. “We can talk to them in practice, but there’s nothing like a match against a really good team on TV, big time. They get to learn a lot. We’ll learn how teams are going to try to attack us and scout us. The second night, Oregon will have a chance to prepare just like we will for them, so there’s a great learning opportunity in that as how we prepare a game plan in 24 hours and go out and execute it.”
Playing without senior setter and co-captain Kelly Hunter, the Huskers lost to both Florida and Oregon in the VERT Challenge to open last season. Even so, Cook said he came away encouraged by his team’s performance.
“When we went down to the VERT Challenge, of course, we had as many unknowns last year as this year,” Cook said. “We actually played pretty well. We had a chance to get in game five with Oregon and we went five with Florida, and if it wasn’t for Carli Snyder ripping off four jump serves we couldn’t pass, we could have won that match. We felt really good because we did a lot of the things we had been training. Again, that’s what I’m looking for this weekend: I want to see us trust our training and play like we’ve been training. I know if we stick with it, we’ll be a really good team. That’s going to be the key — we won’t worry so much about results, just are we doing what we we trained to do and are we trusting our training and trusting each other?”
Florida has a lot of production to replace this season just like Nebraska does, and Cook isn’t quite sure what to expect from the Gators.
“I think we will probably be more similar to last year than they will,” Cook said. “They were in a 6-2; I doubt that they’ll run a 6-2. Maybe they will; they have two lefties so maybe they’ll be in a 6-2. I don’t know. They lost Snyder, [middle blocker] Rhamat [Alhassan] and their opposite [Shaina Joseph]; those were their main kill-getters, but Rachael Kramer it sounds like is their next star hitter, so we’ll have to deal with her. She lit us up last year down there; of course, we did a good job on her in the Final Four. It’s going to come down to serve and pass.”
As for Oregon, the Ducks lost kills leader Taylor Agost but return most of their other impact players and add a transfer from North Carolina in junior outside hitter Taylor Borup.
Cook said last weekend’s sold-put team scrimmage went a long way towards getting the nerves out for his newcomers which should pay off this weekend when the results start to matter.
“No question that Red-White was a great experience,” Cook said. “I think our players now have a way better understanding of what the atmosphere is going to be like and they’re not going to have to worry about that. They know what to expect and what it’s going to be like. That was huge. That will be one less thing we have to worry about and they’ll have to worry about and they can just focus on playing.”
Cook wasn’t quite ready to name his starting setter but did share that freshman Nicklin Hames has been seeing most of the first-team reps in practice with junior Mari Kurkov and senior Brooke Smith splitting the rest.
“Nicklin has done everything we’ve asked her to do in coaching her,” Cook said. “We’ve had her change some techniques, we’ve had her change some things she does and she is all over it. Now she knows exactly when she doesn’t do it right and she sees the results. Nicklin is a really, really quick learner, a really quick learner. She’s doing everything we’re asking her to do.”
As for the second outside hitter position behind senior captain Mikaela Foecke, Cook said it is going to be a game-time decision between sophomore Sami Slaughter and freshman Capri Davis, both of whom have shown sings of brilliance and inexperience.
Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun, a transfer from Texas, is unlikely to play as she continues to recover from a back injury. Cook said Sun is progressing in her rehab and is doing almost everything but live hitting and blocking in practice.
This will be Nebraska’s final year participating in the VERT Challenge as the event is going in a new direction heading forward. Cook said he has something in the works including more top programs to take the VERT’s place on next year’s schedule.
“We’re going to do a tournament where it’s four teams but everybody plays a home match every year, so you either play a Wednesday or a Saturday home match,” Cook said. If you play at home, then you’re opposite. So it’s a tournament, but it will be on a Wednesday and a Saturday and everybody gets to play a home match instead of going three years without and your fourth year you finally get to play at home. So that’s what we have in the works.”
First serve at the Devaney Center between Nebraska and Florida is set for 6 p.m. and the match will be televised on BTN. Texas and Oregon will get things started at the Devaney Center at 3:30 p.m. The Longhorns will face the Gators at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and the Huskers will close things out against the Ducks at 6 p.m
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.