For the first time since I joined the Hail Varsity team, I’m sitting at home this weekend as a new NCAA volleyball champion is crowned.
I’ve been spoiled. I got a chance to cover a Final Four team in each of my first four seasons covering the Huskers. Sitting there after Nebraska’s loss to Wisconsin in the regional final, I had a hard time reconciling with the fact that Nebraska’s season was already over.
Even this week, it was strange not having to prepare for a trip to Pittsburgh. It doesn’t feel right that the Huskers were sitting at home on Thursday night.
But then I remembered that, according to seeding and rankings and everything else, Nebraska made it as far as it was supposed to. As good as Nebraska was this year, Wisconsin is just a little bit better. The fourth-seeded Badgers took down top-seeded Baylor, handing the Bears just their second loss of the season.
On the other side of the bracket, third-seeded Stanford made short work of No. 7 Minnesota. That means two of the three teams that beat the Huskers this season will battle it out for the title on Saturday.
Nebraska went 28-5 overall this season and 17-3 in Big Ten play, finishing in a tie for second, just one match off the Badgers. The Huskers beat nine NCAA Tournament teams during the regular season and then advanced to the Elite Eight. The Huskers didn’t get the revenge they were hoping for against Stanford or Wisconsin, but they still had one heck of a season.
Especially when you consider the circumstances.
Shortly after Nebraska’s final loss to Wisconsin, a reporter asked sophomore setter Nicklin Hames to offer her thoughts on the 2019 season. She had to fight back tears as she gave her answer.
“Really successful,” Hames said, choking up. “Sorry. I just think about everything that this team went through this year and just how strong we became and the adversity that we went through and I’m just so proud that I get to play next to them every day. Just to see how we bonded and we grew together, it was really special. It coming to an end is sad but it’s been amazing to play on this team.”
On Oct. 23, Nebraska announced that sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team (she announced her decision to transfer to Texas earlier this week). Then, four days later, graduate manager Dane Leclair passed away. The Huskers dedicated the rest of the season to him and wore his name on their backs during warmups.
“Dane was always so fun-loving and he just brought so much to this team,” Hames said. “Before we went into every match we just talked about how we wanted to go out there and we wanted to play with the joy that Dane had and I think we did a great job of doing that. It was always an inspiration for us every time we went out there. He was just such a big part of this and I think we honored him in the way we played and the way we acted with each other.
“If he was here, he would be very proud of us.”
If you ask John Cook, they had a little too much fun this season. But that’s the personality of this group and for the most part it seems like Cook found the happy medium between letting them have their fun and holding them to a strict standard in practice.
Lauren Stivrins embraced her leadership role and continued to be a force at the net. Lexi Sun grew into an All-American and Jazz Sweet was right there with her in terms of making a big leap in efficiency and consistency. Hames overcame somewhat of a slow start in the nonconference to lead the Huskers to the second-best hitting percentage in Big Ten play. Callie Schwarzenbach gutted through the second part of the season with a broken thumb and will now have time to get healthy. Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles learned what it's like to play in the Big Ten and in the NCAA Tournament, and they both progressed steadily throughout the season.
This season is over, but there’s still another chapter for this team to write in its own story in Lincoln. Outside of Davis, everyone is set to return next season.
“If you look at our team as a group, we’re getting better in these matches and growing from it,” Cook said after the Wisconsin match. “This whole group returns. I put a football field up on the white board and said ‘OK, now we’re at the 50-yard line, and here we go. We’ve got another year and the goal is to get to Omaha.’ I just think we’ll learn from this.”
Stivrins, Sun, Sweet and Hayley Densberger will all have one last run. Hames, Schwarzenbach, Megan Miller and Anezka Szabo will all be upperclassmen. Kubik, Knuckles and Riley Zuhn all have a full season under their belts now. Finally, Nebraska adds a freshman class headlined by a top-25 recruit and Under Armour All-American in Superior middle blocker Kalynn Meyer.
Stanford, on the other hand, loses most of its starting lineup to graduation. The Badgers will lose two starters and an important reserve. The Golden Gophers lose three starters. Baylor will lose two starters and two important reserves.
Unlike the teams that did make it to the Final Four, Nebraska won’t have to rebuild or reload in 2020. Instead, the Huskers will get the chance to run it back with a squad that won 28 matches and finished second in the toughest conference in the country.
There’s a lot to celebrate from the 2019 season even if the Huskers didn’t make it to their fifth straight Final Four.
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.