Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Grateful For Games, But Sad About Circumstances

April 21, 2021

For all intents and purposes, my beat coverage for a very strange 2020-21 season came to an end on Monday afternoon.

That realization hit me as I was walking out of the CHI Health Center following Nebraska’s season-ending loss to Texas in the Regional Final round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the only postseason match I got to cover in person, and while I knew it would be a difficult challenge for the Huskers, I never really considered beforehand that it would be a one-and-done situation.

This entire pandemic-ridden 2020-21 athletic season has been bizarre. In a normal year, the volleyball season would have ended long ago and my beat coverage would have ended in mid-March whenever the men’s basketball team bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament. Instead, we got a spring volleyball season.

However, that season ended up lasting just 19 matches for the Huskers, which wasn’t nearly enough to do this team — and this senior class — justice. This team deserved better.

Lauren Stivrins is the best example of this. As good as she’s been throughout her career, she elevated her game to a completely different level this season. She improved her kills-per-set average from 2.55 to 3.19 and did it on historical efficiency, falling just short of setting a new single-season hitting percentage record at Nebraska at .471. Through a combination of individual improvement by Stivrins and tweaks to the way Nebraska did things, we got to see Stivrins fully unleashed as a nearly unstoppable force at the net.

Sadly, we only got to see 18 matches of this version of Stivrins, and to make things even worse she ended the year with an undisclosed injury that limited her to playing in just six of Nebraska’s 10 sets in the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s team was better than last year’s, but I don’t believe this squad had enough time to truly find itself, and Coach John Cook said the same thing after the loss.

“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.”

On top of the severely reduced schedule, when the Huskers did get to play they had to do it without the 8,000 screaming Husker fans that they’d become accustomed to playing for at the Devaney Center. Outside of friends and family, the fans had to watch from afar as Stivrins chased history. This senior class didn’t get to have a traditional senior day, which is a travesty (though Nebraska’s creative team did a great job putting together a video package to honor them).

Perhaps one or more of those seniors will take advantage of their extra year of eligibility to run it back and get the senior-year experience they deserve; Cook said he plans to start having those meetings with his players this week.

My other primary beat is men’s basketball, and that team was dealt a bad hand this season as well.

Dalano Banton, Shamiel Stevenson and Derrick Walker all came to Nebraska last year and got to experience the Pinnacle Bank Arena atmosphere from the bench while they redshirted. After sitting out their year (and in Walker’s case, even more than that) they finally got to play this year — only with either no crowd at all or with a small collection of friends and family. Kobe Webster chose to use his grad transfer year at Nebraska, and he too didn’t get to experience what game day is really like at the Vault.

Unlike volleyball, basketball at least got the chance to play some nonconference games, and the Huskers got close to a full season with 27 games. However, I’m not sure any high-major program in the country was hit harder by COVID-19 than Nebraska between the affects of the virus itself and the implications it had on the team’s schedule with so many missed games squeezed into a short amount of time.

Webster at least announced that he’s planning to take advantage of his extra year of eligibility to return to Lincoln, so he’ll get a chance to have the experience he was likely hoping for when he left Western Illinois, but in a lot of ways this seven-win season was a wash more than something Fred Hoiberg and the Huskers can really build off of, and that’s unfortunate.

The football beat belongs to Derek Peterson, but at Hail Varsity it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation when it comes to the university’s most popular sport.  However, this was the first season since I joined the HV team that I did not cover a single football game in person. While I still wrote about the team from back home, it felt a lot different than normal being so separated from all the action as I haven’t even been on any of the football Zoom calls.

Even this spring, I’ve deferred to the rest of the staff with football as I’ve focused on volleyball and other responsibilities. I attended the first spring practice availability but haven’t been back since as we’ve looked to keep the Hail Varsity in-person coverage group small. I didn’t even make it to the open practice because I was coaching my basketball team.

With volleyball over, I’m planning to get back into the swing of things with this last week-and-a-half of spring ball, but this is more a preview of the coming fall than an extension of the current year, so I don’t really count this spring as part of the 2020-21 season.

There was a time not too long ago where we didn’t have any sports at all and had no idea when they’d return, so from that perspective I’m grateful that we were able to have a football season, a basketball season and a volleyball season. I know the players across the different sports have expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to play. It’s just unfortunate that it had to happen under these circumstances as the student-athletes deserve so much more than what 2020-21 gave them.

Here’s to a 2021-22 season that will hopefully look a lot more like what we’re used to.

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