Cook sees signs of another run
The Nebraska volleyball team probably could have received better news than it got on Sunday when it learned what the path would be if the Huskers are going to reach a fourth consecutive NCAA Final Four. But Nebraska’s No. 7 overall seed in the tournament is about what it could have expected after losing six matches this season.
Nebraska (24-6) will host the first round of the tournament on Friday and will play Hofstra (25-7) to begin the postseason. The other first-round match in Lincoln is Arizona vs. Missouri.
Nebraska earned a top-10 seed for the 18th time in the last 19 years.
If the higher-seeded teams in the bracket win in the first two rounds Nebraska would face a challenging second weekend, having to win a regional played at Minnesota. There, Nebraska may have to beat a Minnesota team that already beat Nebraska twice this season, and would be playing with the motivation of advancing to the Final Four, which is in Minneapolis.
Other possible regional paths could have been at No. 1-seeded Stanford, No. 3 Illinois or No. 4 BYU. Nebraska split two matches against Illinois this season, and BYU recently lost one of its best players to an injury.
Nebraska enters the NCAA Tournament on an eight-match winning streak. When Nebraska coach John Cook gathered the team on Sunday evening his message was that they should feel confident.
In many statistical areas, such as defense, blocking and serving, this year’s team is better than Nebraska teams that won national championships in 2015 and 2017.
“I just explained all those things to them,” Cook said. “I talked about how we’re the most improved team in the country. We’ve already played Final Four matches. They say you can be worn down or battle tested, and I just think for a young team like this to go through all those matches we went through, even though we didn’t find success, it really taught us the level we have to play at.”
The team gathered at the Devaney Sports Center for a private watch party. The selection show on ESPNU opened with video of Nebraska’s national championship point from last season. Nebraska senior Mikaela Foecke was interviewed on the show, with her teammates giggling while watching their friend on national TV.
Nebraska’s chances of earning one of the coveted top four seeds were dashed when Nebraska lost three straight matches in October. But Nebraska also had to win a regional on the road to reach the Final Four last season.
“This is kind of just like new life for us, and coming out and playing hard and playing for something really tangible and an NCAA title,” Foecke said.
Seven Big Ten Conference teams made the 64-team field. That includes five of the top-eight seeds, so Cook wasn’t surprised to see the possibility of Big Ten teams playing each other in the Elite Eight.
“It looks like a tough tournament. Everybody has got challenges in every bracket,” Cook said.
Cook sees Nebraska as being very motivated for the tournament.
“Our freshmen have grown up, and we have two people who have been through the wars in Mikaela and Kenzie (Maloney), and they know how to get it done,” Cook said.
In recent weeks middle blocker Lauren Stivrins has seen more urgency from the players on what they need to do to get better. Practices have been more focused, Stivrins said.
“I’m excited to see what this team can do in the tournament,” Stivrins said. “They’re so focused, and they work so much harder than I feel like any other team in the country. I think our hard work is going to finally pay off.”