The alarm clock will go off early on Wednesday for the 14 members of the Nebraska volleyball team. Practice begins at 7 a.m.
It may be worth setting a second alarm. You won’t want to be late for the first practice of the season. And once the balls roll out it will be a frantic training pace. The first match is Aug. 24 against St. Louis, and Aug. 25 the Huskers will play 2011 NCAA champion UCLA at the NU Coliseum.
Before two-a-day practices begin, here are five things worth watching:
1. Unfinished business — That’s the theme for the 2012 season, and players will wear bracelets with those words.
It’s a reminder of how the 2011 season ended. The Huskers entered the NCAA Tournament ranked second in the nation, but were upset in the second round in a five-set loss to Kansas State.
Nebraska won the Big Ten Conference and finished 25-5. The Huskers' No. 12 ranking in the final AVCA coaches’ poll was their lowest final ranking in nearly 10 years.
“We won the Big Ten last year, which was a huge accomplishment,” said coach John Cook on Tuesday, hours away from the first practice. “It was our first year, and we graduated four All-Americans. I thought it was a rebuilding year. We were the first team besides Penn State in eight years to win a Big Ten championship, and it was our first year. We got everybody’s best shot.
“To win the Big Ten was a great accomplishment, but then the third part of our season — the NCAA Tournament — we just left a lot out there. Nobody is happy with how we finished the year last year with our loss at Northwestern, and then losing in the second round.”
There are also bracelets to celebrate the final season at the NU Coliseum, before the volleyball team moves to a renovated Devaney Sports Center in 2013.
2. A lot of the same faces return — Nebraska will enter the season more experienced than in 2011. Gina Mancuso and Hannah Werth at outside hitter. Lauren Cook at setter. Morgan Broekhuis at right-side hitter. Hayley Thramer started 21 matches at middle blocker. Lara Dykstra was the Huskers’ best passer as a freshman libero.
“At the key positions Dykstra is a year older, Paige Hubl has another year of experience,” and will be part of the competition at libero, Cook said. “Our back row is more experienced now. We’re experienced on the pins with the left side and the right side. Lauren is an exceptional setter. The big question marks are in the middle. Thramer started part of the year last year, (redshirt freshman Cecilia Hall from Sweden) has a year under her belt, Allison McNeal is healthy (after missing the 2011 season) and had a personal record in her physical testing. (Freshman Meghan Haggerty) might have more experience than all of them. I feel like in the middle last year we had some question marks. We were inexperienced, and (Brooke Delano) was coming off shoulder surgery. I think our middle can take a huge step.”
3. Team leadership — The Huskers had an interesting dynamic last year, with team captains Brigette Root and Jordan Wilberger each playing reserve roles much of the season, and not always on the floor in critical moments.
This year, all three senior captains figure to play a lot. Last spring, Hubl, Werth and Lauren Cook were selected team captains for 2012 in a team vote. Usually, captains would be voted on during the first week of practice, but John Cook changed it up this season so there would be leaders in the crucial summer months, when coaches are not allowed to be with the team.
“I’m proud of those kids,” John Cook said. “They’ve all had their challenges — big challenges — and they’ve overcome those challenge to put themselves in positions to be selected by their teammates. It’s a pretty powerful statement.”
4. The freshman class — For the first time in recent memory, Cook does not enter the season with plans to redshirt any of the four true freshmen. Alexa Strange is now the backup setter after Lauren Sieckmann left the program in the offseason, and Strange could also play elsewhere. Haggerty, who changed her commitment from Wisconsin to the Huskers in June, could provide some offensive punch in the middle. Kelsey Fien is a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Bakersfield, Calif., and walk-on libero Sheridan Zarda could compete for playing time.
All summer, John Cook has been telling the freshmen to be ready to play right away.
“We need them all,” Cook said. “Zarda could possibly be a libero and defensive specialist and give Hannah and Gina relief in the back row. Alexa has a huge role, she has to make our (scout team side) good and potentially could get in matches at the opposite position. (Haggerty) should compete for playing time to be a starter and Fien and (redshirt freshman Alicia Ostrander) are going to be figuring out who is our third left-side hitter. One of the things we found out last year is it’d be nice to have some subs when we get in some of these back-to-back matches and these kids need a break.”
5. Emerging (or returning) standouts — Mancuso earned first-team All-America honors last season in her first year as a full-time starter. Several others played at an All-America level at times, while struggling in other matches. Mancuso led Nebraska with at least 10 kills in 25 regular-season matches.
“I’m hopeful several of them will take it to another level, both mentally and physically,” Cook said. “For somebody like Gina — she put up great numbers and had a great year — along with Hannah, part of their next step is mentally, how much better are they going to be? Can they be more consistent. They know they’re going to be against double-blocks all the time, how are they going to handle that? Can (Broekhuis) be more consistent? Morgan showed us she was a first-team All-American for part of the year. Can she play a whole season consistently at a high level?”
Yes, the preseason often provides more questions than answers. The answers to some of the questions will begin to be revealed starting Wednesday.