Defending national champion Huskers happy to refocus after Big Ten grind

Defending national champion Huskers happy to refocus after Big Ten grind
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — You could see it start in the dulling details of the game in which the Nebraska volleyball team usually hones to a sharp advantage.

The Huskers’ serving became a little erratic. What had been pinpoint passing was becoming an adventure. NU would race to a lead only to see opponents climb back with strings of points.

Nebraska (27-2) captured the Big Ten championship, but the Huskers survived just as much as they thrived at the close of the regular season.

“It feels like a new season,” coach John Cook said. “For us, I feel like we survived the Big Ten. We accomplished that goal. That was weighing very heavily on our whole program, our team, trying to get that done.”

On the eve of top-seeded Nebraska’s NCAA tournament opener against New Hampshire (21-10), the Huskers said they were content to set aside the grueling chase of the Big Ten season and focus on a new challenge.

A four-match sprint to the final four followed by two more victories to win a second straight national championship. The Huskers say there’s no time over the next three weeks to think about the big picture. It’s time to dial back in to the details.

“I think, especially this year, the Big Ten was kind of exhausting, playing great teams every single weekend,” setter Kelly Hunter said. “I think we kind of need to reset. In the tournament, obviously, if you don’t give it your best, you’re going to go home.”

Said middle blocker Amber Rolfzen: “It’s almost like we know we’re good. We know if we play well, we can make it really far. We could even win (the NCAA title) again. But I don’t think there’s a whole bunch of, ‘We have to win, we need to win,’ because that’s just going to make you play really tense and really uptight.”

Loose and fun is how these Huskers flourish. It was a formula Nebraska found during last year’s run to the NCAA title, and to Cook, it’s a sure sign when he sees smiles in practice.

He saw them come back this week as Nebraska prepared for its fifth straight opening-round opponent from the East Coast. New Hampshire brings a 10-match winning streak to Lincoln after winning the America East tournament for the fourth year a in row. The Wildcats have been swept by Florida, Washington and USC in the first round the previous three seasons and have been swept in the first round in five of their six NCAA appearances.

Cook — always eager to illustrate his points with a metaphor — compared winning the Big Ten title to climbing a mountain, the Huskers gasping the final few steps to the summit while looking over their shoulder.

The NCAA tournament? The coach says that’s a sprint, and if Nebraska breaks the tape first with six more wins, it’ll be the first team in school history to repeat as national champion.

He knows these Huskers run faster when they’re chasing something rather than being chased.

“This now feels like we’ve got to go for it and try to do something nobody else has ever done,” Cook said. “It’s a whole different feel and mindset to me. I feel like our players have a light bounce in our step now.”

Added libero Justine Wong-Orantes: “We won the Big Ten, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Now, everyone’s going for the national championship.”

Instant replay at final four

This year is the first that instant replay will be used in the NCAA tournament, but only at the final four. NU has used instant replay at the Devaney Center for the last two seasons.

The NCAA has left it up to individual conferences to decide if schools had the option to use replay, and it still isn’t standard nationwide.

The decision not to use video review at host sites with the capability left Cook frustrated. He said all four of the head coaches coming to Lincoln agreed to petition the NCAA Championship Committee to use replay in the first- and second-round matches at the Devaney Center with their unanimous consent.

Cook said an NCAA official denied the request because replay would not be used at every site.

“We saw last year there were some major calls in the NCAA tournament that probably cost some teams a chance to win a national championship,” he said. “To me, it’s mind-boggling why we haven’t mandated this in. It’s not that expensive.”

Cook offers students tickets

In Nebraska’s ongoing attempt to bolster its student section at volleyball matches, Cook said Thursday he personally bought 175 tickets for NU students to use as a free allotment.

On its Twitter account, “The Iron N” volleyball student section group posted that the tickets will go to the first 175 students who show up when the Devaney Center doors open at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

“My goal is to have the best student section in the country at some point. We have to build it,” Cook said. “Our students are new to this still, relatively knew, because we really didn’t have a student section in the Coliseum.”

Cook said that other schools like Penn State and Texas foot the bill for student tickets in the postseason.

“I really appreciate our students, and we’re trying to build a great student section here,” Cook said. “I want our students to feel like they can come here. They already had to buy season tickets to be in here, so I don’t want money to be an option to buy a ticket.”

LINCOLN REGIONAL CAPSULES

NEBRASKA (27-2)

Coach: John Cook (17th season)

Conference (finish): Big Ten (1st)

AVCA rank and NCAA seed: No. 2 and No. 1

NCAA appearance: 35th

Big hitters: Kadie Rolfzen (3.14 kills per set), Mikaela Foecke (2.89), Andie Malloy (2.59)

Top blockers: Amber Rolfzen (1.43 per set), Briana Holman (1.2)

Top diggers: Justine Wong-Orantes (4.14 per set), Kadie Rolfzen (2.51)

The setter: Kelly Hunter (11.24 assists per set)

Honor roll: Nebraska placed a league-best four players on the All-Big Ten team, highlighted by Wong-Orantes being named the conference’s defensive player of the year for the second season in a row. Kadie Rolfzen became just the third player in school history to be a first-team all-conference pick four straight seasons, joining Greichaly Cepero and Sarah Pavan.

Fast fact: The defending NCAA champions are trying to win two straight national titles for the first time in program history. Each of the first three times Nebraska has won the national title, the team has reached at least the regional final the following year. NU reached the final four the season after winning the 1995 and 2000 championships and made the regional final in 2007.

NEW HAMPSHIRE (21-10)

Coach: Jill Hirschinger (21st season)

Conference (finish): America East (1st)

AVCA rank and NCAA seed: unranked and unseeded

NCAA appearance: 7th

Big hitters: Demi Muses (3.57), Emily Tanski (2.74), Kennedi Smith (2.34)

Top blockers: Gabri Olhava (0.86), Muses (0.81)

Top diggers: Muses (3.56), Sara Carlson (3.24)

The setter: Keelin Severtson (10.93)

Honor roll: Muses earned the America East player of the year honor for the second straight season after leading the Wildcats in kills and digs while ranking second in blocks. Severtson is the two-time America East setter of the year. A New Hampshire player has been the conference player of the year four seasons in a row.

Fast fact: New Hampshire has earned the America East’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament four years in a row. The Wildcats clinched this year’s berth by sweeping Albany on Nov. 19 in the final of the conference tournament.

WICHITA STATE (24-7)

Coach: Chris Lamb (17th season)

Conference (finish): Missouri Valley (2nd)

AVCA rank and NCAA seed: unranked and unseeded

NCAA appearance: 10th

Big hitters: Jody Larson (3.12), Mikaela Raudsepp (2.95), Tabitha Brown (2.87)

Top blockers: Abbie Lehman (1.23), Emily Hiebert (0.58)

Top diggers: Dani Mostrom (4.12), Larson (3.41)

The setter: Hiebert (10.68)

Honor roll: Larson, a senior outside hitter, was named the MVP of the Missouri Valley tournament, while Brown and Hiebert were named to the all-tournament team.

Fast fact: The Shockers have three freshmen from Nebraska on their roster: defensive specialist Kara Bown (Lincoln East) and outside hitters Allie Davis (Lincoln Southwest) and Lauren Hinrichs (Doniphan-Trumbull).

TCU (14-12)

Coach: Jill Kramer (2nd season)

Conference (finish): Big 12 (6th)

AVCA rank and NCAA seed: unranked and unseeded

NCAA appearance: 3rd

Big hitters: Ashleigh Martin (2.16), Sarita Mikals (2.10), Anna Walsh (1.96)

Top blockers: Natalie Gower (1.26), Regan McGuire (1.0)

Top diggers: Jillian Bergeson (3.69), Mikals (3.06)

The setters: Lamprini Konstantinidou (5.29), Kaylee Smith (5.15)

Honor roll: Natalie Gower, a senior middle blocker from St. Louis, was the lone Horned Frog named first-team All-Big 12. Her .366 attack percentage leads the team, and her 15 blocks against Oklahoma on Oct. 1 were a single-match school record.

Fast fact: TCU’s 14-12 record isn’t dazzling, but the selection committee gave deference to the Horned Frogs having the nation’s toughest schedule according to the RPI. To get eligible for postseason play, TCU had to win three straight five-set matches to end the regular season.

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