In a basement locker room in Madison, Wisconsin, just minutes after the Nebraska volleyball team had its 2019 season end in the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament, Nebraska coach John Cook was already looking ahead to the next season.
“(After the match) I put a football field up on the whiteboard and said, 'OK, now we're at the 50-yard line,'" Cook said then. "We've got another year. Goal is to get to Omaha."
That was on Dec. 14, 2019, and the 2019 squad was always kind of viewed through a two-year lens because the Huskers had so many underclassman starters who would probably return.
Omaha was scheduled to host the Final Four in 2020, and Cook always goes all-in when that happens. That’s worked well, with Nebraska qualifying for the Final Four all three times it’s been there, and twice winning national titles there.
That scene in Madison, of course, seems like years ago, as the world has changed in countless ways due to the coronavirus pandemic since that night.
The postponed volleyball season will begin for Nebraska this week, and the Final Four will still be held in Omaha in April. Reaching the Final Four, and trying to win a national championship, is still on the mind of the Huskers.
But after going 13 months without a match, getting to play is enough for now.
“Just getting back out there with this team and winning some games, that would put the biggest smile on my face,” said Lauren Stivrins, Nebraska’s two-time All-American middle blocker and provider of joy to Husker fans in the way she crushes a volleyball.
The smiles brought on by Husker volleyball return this week for Nebraska fans. The fifth-ranked Huskers start the season on the road on Friday against Indiana.
Getting to the Final Four will be the goal, but there seems to be more appreciation for and focus on each step of the process among the players and coaches. The Huskers want to get to the first match with all of the players available to play. And then hopefully they can do the same thing the following week.
“We know (Omaha is) close, but, man, it’s a long road ahead of us before we start worrying about that,” Cook said.
Cook is proud of how the players have handled the past nine months. Usually, the schedule for the season is announced in April or May, and then the road map is in place. But the schedule never came, even when the season was scheduled to begin in August. Then the season was postponed until the second semester.
“The season could have been canceled, but they still came in and worked really hard to get better,” Cook said.
Nicklin Hames, Nebraska’s starting setter, said not knowing what was next was the hardest part of the past year.
“It’s hard to train every day and not know when you’re going to play again,” Hames said. “But I thought our team did a really good job of coming in and having a growth mindset and just getting better that day.”
Nebraska returned every starter from last year’s team, and Cook is excited because the players are a year older and a year wiser. And he’s seen how hard the team will work.
“They come in wanting to get better and wanting to work on things and not leave the gym until they get it,” Cook said.
While Nebraska appears to be in a good position for a great season because of how many players it returns from last season, Cook is measured in his assessment of the team.
At times during practice the Huskers have played at a really high level, Cook said. But while watching other sports play during a pandemic, Cook has seen that achieving consistency can be a challenge, especially if players are in and out of the lineup for COVID-19 reasons.
And Nebraska may still be chasing Wisconsin, which is ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll. The Badgers were the superior team to the Huskers last season, sweeping Nebraska three times including in the NCAA Elite Eight. Wisconsin also returned many of its top players. It’s a team like the Badgers that Nebraska may have to beat to reach Omaha.
Wisconsin and Nebraska will play twice in February.
With no matches in the fall, Nebraska had more time to prepare the four new players. The players and coaches have analyzed more video than in the past, and added some new things to the offensive attack.
But what matters most is when Nebraska starts playing matches.
“That’s the real test is when we play,” Cook said. “That’s when we’re going to find out how much of this is transferred.”
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