LEXINGTON, Ky. — The matches keep getting more difficult for the Nebraska volleyball team during the second week of the NCAA Tournament, but just as it has all season, the Huskers feel really well-prepared.
In part that’s because during practice the Huskers are going against a good group on the B side of the net, the group of players who don’t play as much. That’s players like senior Allie Havers and freshmen Chesney McClellan, Anezka Szabo and Sami Slaughter.
When Nebraska played Michigan State earlier in the season, Szabo and Slaughter had serves that are similar to that of some of the Michigan State players, so Nebraska coach John Cook said the Huskers were ready.
You want the B side to make the starters pay when they don’t execute, Cook says. That doesn’t always happen, but it has this year for the Huskers. There are times when Cook gets frustrated during practice because the B side keeps winning points.
Cook said he’s probably talked to the B side about being good in practice more than he has the starters, because they can make the starters better and set the tone.
“The freshmen, before practice (Thursday), I gave them a lecture before practice today that, ‘OK, we’re taking it up another notch today and you guys have to be really good,’ and they did a great job today,” Cook said.
The team arrived here late Wednesday ahead of Friday’s NCAA Sweet 16 match against Colorado. Nebraska practiced for 1½ hours on Thursday afternoon.
Senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht said the non-starters challenge the starters in practice.
“Anezka puts up a huge block, so it challenges Mikaela (Foecke) and me,” Albrecht said. “Every time we go up against her we have to kind of get creative because she’s huge and she puts up a solid block.”
Slaughter has also made it tough for the starters in practice.
“Some days Sami comes into practice and she just blocks balls straight down, and you’re like, ‘How did you get that?” Foecke said.
Familiar places: Nebraska would have preferred to earn the No. 4 seed and be hosting a regional this week instead of being the No. 5 seed. But Cook says the Lexington Regional is a good fit because Nebraska has played at the 8,500-seat Memorial Coliseum recently.
The Huskers won two matches here in 2015, including against top-ranked Washington, to advance to the Final Four.
“I just think of all the places we could have been sent, we’re excited about being here because we had such a great tournament here two years ago,” Cook said. “A lot of familiarity, we know this gym, half of our team was in that regional two years ago. We’re excited and we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to continue to build on the season that we’ve had.”
Familiar faces: Cook has close ties to two of other teams in the regional. Kentucky coach Craig Skinner was an assistant for Cook at both Wisconsin and Nebraska, including during the Huskers’ national championship season in 2000. And Colorado associate head coach Lee Maes was also an assistant at Nebraska, including during the Huskers’ 2006 national championship season, before moving on to be the head coach at Virginia
“So, the boys are reuniting here in Lexington,” Cook said.
Feeling good: Nebraska has a season-best 15-match win streak and will try to win two more matches this weekend to get to the Final Four for a third straight season. The Huskers are still feeling really good, Albrecht said.
“Coach was just telling us after practice that this is one of the best practices that we’ve had serve and passwise, energywise and we took it up another level today,” Albrecht said. “I think we got better today, which is important and we’re still trying to get better as the season goes on. I think the team is really excited for tomorrow just to have another opportunity to play the game.”
Still not OK to wear red: Nebraska and Colorado haven’t played a regular-season match since Nebraska left for the Big Ten Conference, and none of the current players were part of that rivalry. But the coaches know what the Nebraska-Colorado rivalry was.
“It’s still not OK to wear red around campus, or anything like that,” said second-year Colorado head coach Jesse Maloney said. “We talked a little bit this week about the history of the rivalry in general and the volleyball rivalry. I was a student at the University of Colorado in the ’90s, so I’m aware what the matchup means.”