Change in focus helps seniors keep Nebraska volleyball at the top

LINCOLN — When Nebraska’s five seniors sat down together at the start of the summer, they understood the gap between the things they could control and the things they couldn’t. The Huskers had graduated one of the most-decorated classes in school history after last season, losing three All-Americans who had helped Nebraska to back-to-back final fours.

While those departures lowered expectations of many — including some of NU’s own players — the 2017 senior class saw opportunity. A clean slate to build the kind of camaraderie they wanted.

“One thing that we talked about was the fact that we lost so many seniors the previous year and there were things on the team we didn’t necessarily like,” senior middle blocker Briana Holman said. “So we talked about completely building a new culture.”

At the start of a preseason practice, the Huskers broke into small groups to brainstorm a theme for the season. Each group made its pitch to the coaches including Powerpoint slides and role-playing skits. They handed out T-shirts to the coaching staff. Coach John Cook was blown away by the thoughtfulness.

What they came away with was the six words that end practices, meetings, timeout huddles and postgame wrap-ups. A phrase that’s come to define a season of unforeseen success.

“With each other. For each other.”

“It all started in the summer,” Cook said. “That’s when those seniors took charge of this team. They’ve done a fantastic job and they’re seeing the results.”

In the recent past, Nebraska had the proven talent to articulate big goals. Last year’s motto, “Dream Bigger,” embraced the chase for a second straight national championship and a Big Ten title, which NU hadn’t won since 2011.

But those expectations weighed on the team, setter Kelly Hunter said, at times turning a winning season into a slog. NU lived up to preseason predictions by claiming the conference championship, but the trophy represented relief as much as a reward. Focusing on teammates rather than titles has put more joy into this year’s run, including the team’s current 12-match winning streak.

“I feel like that’s why we hit it so hard in the summer. It was like, ‘Who is this team going to be?’  ” Hunter said. “We had been identified for so long as a top team, No. 1. We’d lost a lot of people, but we’d gained a lot of people. I think it was important for us to find ourselves, and find our stride and who we were.”

As it has ended up, the Huskers are on pace to equal last year’s accomplishments. With a Senior Night victory over Iowa (18-14, 7-12 Big Ten) on Saturday (7 p.m, NET), No. 5 Nebraska (25-4, 18-1) would at least share the conference championship with No. 1 Penn State. The Huskers would be outright champions by beating the Hawkeyes combined with a Penn State loss at No. 8 Minnesota on Saturday.

If Nebraska and Penn State both finished with the same conference record, they would be named co-champions despite the Huskers’ 3-0 win over the Nittany Lions on Sept. 22. The head-to-head win would, however, let NU claim the Big Ten’s automatic qualifying berth to the NCAA tournament.

Cook said he wasn’t surprised that this year’s seniors led with a focus away from titles and trophies. Each member of the senior class was forced to delay gratification during her Nebraska career.

Middle blocker Allie Havers, who played four years on the NU women’s basketball team, has made one appearance in her lone season of volleyball. Roommates Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend played reserve and specialty roles for three seasons before becoming full-time starters. Hunter, a high school All-American at Papillion-La Vista South, waited two seasons before taking controls of the offense.

The longest road to Senior Night belongs to Holman, who left LSU after being named a first-team All-American in 2014. When the Tigers wouldn’t grant Holman a transfer exception that would’ve let her play for NU immediately, she took a redshirt year and watched from the bench as the Huskers won the 2015 NCAA title.

“All five of them have a huge presence on the court, in practice, on the bench,” junior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “They’re really good leaders to look up to, especially because me and Mikaela (Foecke) hopefully will be stepping into those roles next year. I couldn’t ask for better people to look up to.”

The saying “With each other, for each other” has sometimes meant being hard on each other. The Huskers said recent teams weren’t always comfortable holding each other accountable, so part of their offseason included training with the team’s sports psychologist on handling conflict and recognizing different leadership styles.

“So I know maybe I can’t say something to Kelly the same way I could say it to Foecke,” Holman said. “Just simple things like that make a big difference, and it makes you have better communication and a better understanding of who’s next to you on the court.”

“Coach always says not to leave someone on an island,” Townsend said. “If I’m struggling, I know Anni is going to pick me up. The other five people out there are going to be helping me. Then I’m going to try to get better for them.”

The Huskers’ seniors have a clear reverence for the program’s history. There are enough banners in the Devaney Center for nearly every previous class of Huskers to claim an accomplishment. Winning their final regular-season home match would make this class of seniors the first ones in Nebraska history to hoist two Big Ten championship trophies.

But an even more worthy legacy, the 2017 seniors felt, was to build a foundation of accountability, honesty and camaraderie for their successors.

“It’s not like we have one star that’s going to carry our team to a national championship,” Albrecht said. “We have to go as a team, all six of us, and doing it for your teammates’ best intentions, so playing for something besides yourself.”

Iowa at Nebraska

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bob Davaney Sports Center

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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