When the Nebraska volleyball team played its first home match of the season six weeks ago, one of the takeaways was that this may be even harder than we thought because of the absence of fans.
That’s probably especially true for the Huskers, who are used to getting so much energy early during a match, and then a late push in a close match, from their 8,000 supporters at the Devaney Sports Center.
For the first time in decades, the Huskers are playing home matches without thousands of fans watching due to Big Ten rules in place due to COVID-19 limiting the crowd to mostly the families and some friends of the players and staff. The families are seated in the second level above the team benches.
Saturday’s match against Iowa will be the Huskers’ seventh home match, and sophomore Madi Kubik says it still doesn’t feel right.
"I don’t think it ever feels any more regular," Kubik said. "I just feel like I miss playing in Devaney when it feels like Devaney. But I think we’ve got better as a team being able to bring our own energy and recognizing that we’re not going to get it from 8,000 fans."
Fifth-ranked Nebraska also played Iowa (3-12) on Wednesday, with the Huskers winning 3-0 on the road.
Nebraska’s first home match, against Maryland on Feb. 5 was eerily quiet. Lauren Stivrins said you would have been able to hear a penny drop. Because it was so quiet the TV announcing crew could be heard at times talking during the broadcast in the sections near the TV booth.
Since then, Nebraska’s fan experience staff has broken up the silence by playing short clips of music between each point, which has helped.
Nebraska has a 4-2 record at home, with losses against No. 5 Minnesota and No. 11 Ohio State.
Nebraska coach John Cook said there is a void this season without fans. In both defeats Nebraska lost the first set.
“I’m just wondering if it’s such a letdown not having the crowd, and if that’s effected our energy and our starts,” Cook said. “So we’re going to try to address that a little bit. I don’t think there is any magic formula. It feels empty and there is something definitely missing. That’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality.”
There have been a few matches this season — the Sunday morning sweep against the Gophers and a five-set win against Ohio State — when you were left thinking about how Devaney would have been rocking with some thrilled Husker fans during those matches.
"I was actually sitting there in set five (against Ohio State) like, 'If we had 8,000 people in here, how fun would this be?'" Cook said. "It’s still fun, but I feel bad for the fans missing out on a great five-set matches that comes down to the wire."
Stivrins takes control: During last Friday’s five-set win against Ohio State, the Huskers fell behind 0-2 in the match, before winning the final three sets to take the match.
During the short break between the second and third sets when the Huskers return to the locker room, Cook said Stivrins did most of the talking.
The fifth-year senior and co-captain is motivated to lead the Huskers to a special season, and it’s shown in both her play and how she leads the team.
"Lauren knows how to win, and Lauren has set a great example for us and how to be tough in the tight plays and how to be consistent," Kubik said.
While Stivrins’ message to the team may be similar to what the coaches would say, it can have a different impact coming from her.
"We try to work on having a player-driven culture, and that makes us more successful," Kubik said. "When it comes from coach (Cook) it obviously carries a lot of weight. But coming from each other there is a certain accountability level that means a lot, and we want to play for the person next to us. When it comes from (Stivrins) it means a lot."
Cook is just fine with Stivrins taking control.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "She has free rein. She’s a captain of this team and that’s part of her role and what’s expected of her."