For most college students, this week is filled with final exams. For the Nebraska volleyball players, that is doubly true. Not only do the Huskers have to finish up their semesters in the classroom, they also are facing their final challenges on the court as well with the national semifinals taking place in Kansas City on Thursday.
While the Huskers do have seven true or redshirt freshmen playing in their first Final Four, Nebraska also has six juniors or seniors who have two Final Fours already under their belt.
“We’ve been talking to our freshmen; there are so many distractions this week, it’s like the last thing you’re doing is playing volleyball,” Coach John Cook said. “Our older players know that; we’ll continue to talk to our freshmen, but they’ve got to stay focused.
“The other challenge is trying to get through finals. We got a lot of them out of the way the first two days. It’s an incredibly tough week for student-athletes. It makes no sense to really have it during this week, finals week, but I’m sure the NCAA looks into that because it’s all about the student-athlete welfare, but it’s a lot to balance and then try to go play great volleyball. A tremendous challenge, but I think our older players understand what it takes and they’ll be dialed in.”
The Sprint Center in Kansas City is just a three-hour drive from Lincoln, and senior defensive specialist Sydney Townsend is hoping for a Husker-heavy crowd on par with what Nebraska saw in the 2015 Final Four in Omaha.
“I think probably half the arena will be Nebraska fans,” Cook said. “That will be exciting. I think it will be really good for our team to have all that support down there. They were selling tickets to Nebraska people a year ago when it went on sale because so many people like to go to the Final Four. Now the fact that we’re in it, there are probably people scrambling for tickets. It will be great for us and I’m excited to see Husker Nation down there supporting us.”
Townsend had a message for the fans who will be making the trip down to Kansas City.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Townsend said. “I don’t know how to describe how much we love the support and appreciate it. We really thank all the fans for coming.”
On the other side of the net will be a familiar foe in top-seeded Penn State, who the Huskers shared the Big Ten title with this season despite the Huskers handing the Nittany Lions their only loss of the regular season.
“I didn't really think about it until someone said it the other day, but it is kind of like a Big Ten Championship,” Townsend said.
Cook said the Huskers have every reason in the world to be confident heading into this match.
“Statistically, we’ve played at a really high level,” Cook said. “We’ve lost three sets since whenever we played Wisconsin. I don’t know how many sets we’ve won; I haven’t totaled it up. And we’ve been playing really well in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky is as good of a team as we’ve played and the other three teams we played, we pretty much controlled them."
Nebraska is actually 51-6 in sets since the 3-1 loss at Wisconsin on Oct. 11, but Cook was close.
“Now it’s Penn State and we’ve had wars with them,” Cook continued. “They should be confident. We know Penn State and we like playing them. How many times have we played them in the last four years? It’s a familiar team for us and we know those players. We call them by name and everybody knows who we’re talking about.”
Nebraska is 7-1 against Penn State over the past four seasons and took down the Nittany Lions in five sets in the regional semifinal at the Devaney Center last season to wrap up a 3-0 year against Nebraska’s conference rival.
The Huskers swept the Nittany Lions on the road to open Big Ten play, but Cook said he and the team have been focusing more on Penn State’s recent matches than looking back at what worked in their first meeting.
“They changed their lineup a little bit since the last time we played them, so we’ve been more focused on what they’ve been doing the last five matches,” Cook said. “They flipped a couple players. But you can do the game plan — it’s going to be Haleigh Washington, Simone Lee and [Ali] Frantti, and then Heidi Thelen a little bit and [Tori] Gorrell a little bit. Those three players have over 1,000 kills. It’s almost unheard of to have there players with over 1,000 kills. They’re not a difficult team to prepare for strategy-wise. They just line it up and here we go.”
In the other match-up, The second-seeded Gators of Florida (who beat Nebraska at the VERT Challenge without senior setter Kelly Hunter) and the third-seeded Cardinal of Stanford will face off to determine the other finalist.
The action at the Sprint Center gets started at 6 p.m. CT. Stay tuned to Hail Varsity for continued coverage of the NCAA Volleyball National Semifinals.
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.