LINCOLN — The Nebraska volleyball team lifts weights and runs striders, trying to find the last bit of strength that makes the difference on the match-changing rallies to which coach John Cook likes to refer as “national championship points.”
But the Huskers learned last season nothing may feel so heavy as the weight of expectations. Freed from the pressure of defending a national title, No. 5 Nebraska (26-4) enters Friday’s 7 p.m. first-round NCAA tournament match against Stony Brook (18-12) energized by the spirit of a new race they don’t believe anyone expects them to win.
“We’re in hunt mode right now. We’re going after it,” Cook said on the eve of NU’s postseason opener. “Last year, I think we felt like we were the hunted. We had something to lose last year. This year, you can’t lose anything you haven’t won yet.”
In Cook’s eyes, the Huskers have given him one of the most memorable seasons in his 18-year Nebraska tenure. After last season, the team had to replace four senior starters. Seven of the 14 players this season were true or redshirt freshmen. Both of Cook’s assistant coaches left for head coaching jobs, and he replaced them with a pair of young assistants new to coaching college women.
All the Huskers did was finish 19-1 in the Big Ten, sharing the conference title with the No. 1-ranked team in the country. Nebraska will carry a 13-match winning streak into Friday’s match against the Seawolves, who will make their first NCAA tournament appearance after winning the America East’s automatic bid.
“I’m putting this in the top two of my seasons in my career here,” Cook said. “I don’t care what happens in the next three weeks. It’s one of the most rewarding, fulfilling seasons that I’ve had.”
Thursday, Cook and two of his seniors remarked how quickly it felt like the season had flown by. Setter Kelly Hunter said the Huskers essentially lost track of time just focusing moment by moment.
Having proven they can win a marathon of the 10-week Big Ten schedule, the Huskers entered practice this week excited to see how they can do at a three-week sprint that could put them in a third straight final four in Kansas City.
“We’re still trying to get better every day,” Hunter said, “and this week we were still trying to get out of our comfort zone and stuff like that. So we’re still pushing ourselves, but I think we’re excited to get the tournament rolling.”
If Nebraska isn’t used to being an underdog, it still speaks as if it wears the role well. The Huskers were chafed by receiving the No. 5 seed in the tournament, when getting one of the top four seeds would allow them to host regional rounds next weekend at the Devaney Center.
If the Huskers beat Stony Brook, then win on Saturday night against the winner of the Devaney Center’s other first-round match at 4:30 Friday between Florida State (18-10) and Washington State (17-15), Nebraska could be headed to Lexington, Kentucky, for the sweet 16.
NU only would host the regional round if No. 4 seed Kentucky does not win its subregional.
“There are people out there that still don’t believe that we can be the best,” senior middle blocker Briana Holman said. “We know what we’re capable of, and so we’re just going to take it point by point and hopefully make it to Kansas City.”
Cook took time this week to show the team just how much those points have added up. While the Huskers have won an NCAA championship and Big Ten title in the past two seasons, this year’s club had the highest point differential of any team in the last five seasons. NU won its second straight conference title with a plus-320 point differential over league opponents.
“There’s no reason they shouldn’t see themselves competing (for) and winning a national championship,” he said. “We certainly have played the level of volleyball throughout the year to warrant us to say that, and now we’ve got to go get it.”
Go down the list, Cook said, and this year’s team has put up favorable numbers to any in the last several years.
Attack percentage, opponent attack percentage, blocks. Nebraska held its final seven regular-season opponents to a combined .108 attack percentage while hitting .310 or higher in six of its last seven.
If people are surprised by the Huskers anymore, they just haven’t been paying attention.
“Our whole goal this year was to just kind of take it one match at a time and surprise people,” Hunter said. “I think we’ve done that.
“It’s just kind of fun to shock people, I guess.”
Stony Brook at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Devaney Center