Hurrdat Sports

↓ The Local Coverage You Need ↓

Hail Varsity
Mavericks All Access
Bluejay Breakdown
NEB Preps
NEB Pros

2023 Huskers Final Four Notebook

by Dec 13, 2023Nebraska Volleyball

Nebraska Cornhuskers head to the Player Lounge after open practice before the NCAA Final Four, Wednesday, December 13, 2023, Tampa, Florida. Photo by John S. Peterson.
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

TAMPA, Fla. — For the 11th time under John Cook’s leadership, the Nebraska volleyball team has reached the Final Four.

“It never gets old,” Cook said during Nebraska’s press conference on Wednesday. “Tampa’s done a great job and it’s just a great feel around here. The players are having a lot of fun and we had a pretty good practice, so I had fun today too.”

While the feeling of making it to this point never gets old, Cook said each Final Four trip is unique.

“What feels different is each Final Four just ramps up another notch,” Cook said. “These people are doing an amazing job here. You feel like you’re in a championship environment. Some years it just feels like you’re an afterthought or they’ve got to do this because of whatever. These people here, this is a championship city, culture and environment, and that’s what it feels like to me. The NCAA people and ESPN, they’ve got their A-games going right now. I’ve been very impressed with what they’ve done.”

Nebraska will take on fellow No. 1 seed Pittsburgh in the first round on Thursday while No. Wisconsin will battle it out with No. 2 Texas in the second semifinal.

Here’s a collection of news, notes and quotes in our Final Four notebook.

ALL-AMERICAN HUSKERS

Nebraska was well-represented when the AVCA announced its All-America Teams on Wednesday morning (which happened while the Huskers were on the practice court).

Junior opposite hitter Merritt Beason and junior libero Lexi Rodriguez are both first-team All-Americans. Freshman setter Bergen Reilly made the second team. Freshman outside hitter Harper Murray was a third-team selection.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Merritt Beason (13), Bergen Reilly, and Lexi Rodriguez make their way to the lockerroom after open practice before the NCAA Semi-Finals, Wednesday, December 13, 2023, Tampa, Florida. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Cornhuskers Merritt Beason, Bergen Reilly and Lexi Rodriguez make their way to the locker room after open practice in Tampa Wednesday. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Rodriguez earned All-America distinction for the third straight year (first-team in 2021, second-team in 2022), while the other three are first-timers.

Rodriguez is the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year despite finishing 10th in the league in assists during the regular season, a sign of respect the league’s coaches have for her (in addition to their game-plans that avoid hitting her way as much as possible). She’s averaging 3.62 digs per set and is one of the best in the country in serve receive.

Beason is averaging 3.86 kills per set on .293 hitting and 2.09 digs per set as a six-rotation opposite in her first season as a Husker. She was the AVCA Region Player of the Year.

Beason had a strong sophomore season at Florida, averaging 3.35 kills per set on .261 hitting while earning a spot on the AVCA All-Southeast Region team, but she took her game to a new level in her first season as a Husker.

“I think since I’ve been at Nebraska, every area of my game has improved a ton. I think the biggest thing that’s helped me is the relationships that I have with each of my coaches, and I think that’s bled into the way that I’m able to play on the court. So I know that I have a really good relationship with each of our coaches and all of our staff and that helps me be myself and play like me. But I think every single area of my game has grown — hitting, block, defense, serve-receive, especially serving. Every single day, Coach is pushing us and all the staff is pushing us, and I think I’ve been pushed in a lot of ways that I wasn’t pushed before, and that’s increased my game in tons of way. I would say both physically, like, volleyball skill-wise, but also mentally and emotionally I’ve been able to develop into the player that I want to play like here.”

Reilly, the first freshman to win Big Ten Setter of the Year since its inception in 2012, is averaging 10.64 assists and 2.70 digs per set while guiding Nebraska to top-20 marks in hitting (.279) and kills per set (14.06).

Murray beat out Reilly for the AVCA Region and Big Ten Freshman of the Year awards. She’s averaging 3.23 kills per set on .239 hitting and 2.10 digs per set with a team-high 34 aces and eight double-doubles.

FRESHMAN PHENOMS

Reilly and Murray are two of the six true freshmen to earn All-America honors with another three making the honorable mention list.

First and foremost among them is Pittsburgh opposite hitter Olivia Babcock, the AVCA Freshman of the Year who Nebraska will see on Thursday.

“I think it was deserved,” Pitt coach Fisher said of the recognition. “And I also think it’s just really impressive because there are so many good freshmen this year in college. This isn’t just a normal — at least it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like there’s so many freshmen playing big roles on some of the top teams. And it’s good exposure for our program, and it’s good work by her. But she’s been incredibly consistent all year and carried a big load for us.”

Cook said freshman coming into college are more prepared to play high-level volleyball right away than they ever have been, largely because of the improvement in the club system across the country.

“Bergen is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Cook said. “And I remember her club coach who started a club program up there — I’m going to say Bergen was probably in about third grade — and I went up there and helped him do his first clinic. And now he’s built this club program that can produce a player like her. Lexi is from a small town on the Iowa-Illinois border. Merritt is from somewhere in Alabama, I don’t know. You watch club volleyball now, there’s not just one or two teams that are dominating. There are great teams all across the country. I think that’s really helped prepare them to transition to college.”

It prepared Nebraska’s freshman class enough for four of the five to start right away, while the fifth is redshirting behind a six-rotation team captain. The Huskers are the youngest team at the Final Four, yet they’re the No. 1 overall seed.

“I think that we’re all very ready for this,” Reilly said. “All five freshmen have been working since January, since day one, to get to this point. And every single day we’ve come in and we’ve worked our butts off to get here. So we’re prepared. We’ve had a lot of learning to do, obviously. So we’ve had to lean on some of the older girls. But we’re prepared, we’re ready, and we’ve had a lot of big moments behind us this season, too. So this is another big game and we’re excited for it and we’re just ready to go get after it.”

STEPPING STONES

Cook said this team has learned something from every match so far this season, but even so, a few stand out beyond the rest as significant matches during the Huskers’ journey to Tampa.

Merritt Beason preparing to dig the ball the ball during open practice. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Merritt Beason highlighted two matches in particular that stand out in her mind as ones that taught the Huskers what they’re made of.

“The Stanford match was a really big test for us and I think that match kind of showed us a lot about who we are as a team,” Beason said. “I think after that match we were all just kind of like, ‘Oh, we are really good.’ So I think that was a very big telling factor for us. I think also the Penn State [road] match was huge for us, being down 0-2 and figuring out a way to rally in a very, very tough environment. That was an environment that most of us had never played in before. So I think that match also taught us a lot about ourselves and how we were going to be as a team.”

Additionally, Cook highlighted the Arkansas four-set win. He said at the time he believes the regional final is the hardest match to win.

“I think Arkansas was a huge one; we could have lost that match,” Cook said. “We had to play some great volleyball when things were not going well. So I think that was big confidence boost for us, like it’s not going to be perfect this time of year but you’ve just got to find ways to win. These guys have been doing that.”

Other milestone matches that helped the Huskers make it to the Final Four include the Volleyball Day in Nebraska match at Memorial Stadium, the 3-2 home win against Wisconsin and the outright Big Ten title-clinching win at Iowa.

After a long season filled with triumphs, records and just one defeat, Nebraska is just two wins away from crossing the final goal off its check list.

Setting the Table, Leading the Way

Bergen Reilly is the third straight starting setter that has led Nebraska to a Final Four. The previous two, Kelly Hunter and Nicklin Hames, just so happen to be on Cook’s staff. Reilly said she’s leaned on them for guidance throughout her freshman season.

“They’ve been huge for me, coming in as a freshman and taking over the offense,” Reilly said. “Just having their experience behind me has been huge and giving me a lot of confidence. Knowing that they have belief and trust in me has just helped me have trust in myself. They’re two amazing setters and they’re two amazing coaches, so that’s just helped me immensely throughout the season.”

Hames also led Nebraska to the Final Four as a freshman; Nebraska finished as the runner-up to Stanford in 2018. Kelly set Nebraska to national titles in 2015 and 2017.

Krause Getting Closer, But Time’s Almost Up

The Huskers lost a big part of their team when Lindsay Krause went down with a severe ankle injury in practice ahead of the Northwestern match on Oct. 18.

Nebraska Cornhusker outside hitter Lindsay Krause (22) digs the ball during open practice before the NCAA Semi-Finals, Wednesday, December 13, 2023, Tampa, Florida. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Lindsay Krause digs the ball during open practice before the NCAA Semifinals in Tampa, Florida. Photo by John S. Peterson.

The 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter has missed Nebraska’s last 16 matches, though last weekend was a big step forward. For the first time since the injury, she suited up and went through warm-ups before Nebraska’s matches against Georgia Tech and Arkansas. She did not play in either match, but her practice work has continued to ramp up over the last couple of weeks.

“I know she’s super excited about it and we’re glad to have her back,” Beason said after the regional final. “Obviously, she never left the team, but in a way, I know she was kind of struggling with that, just wanting to be back out there, wanting to feel as if she was still giving to the team. I’m just super happy for her to be able to be back and be warming up and dressing out and things like that. Every day, she’s getting closer to being back, and I’m just really excited for her because I know she’s been waiting for this and she’s been working really, really hard to be in that position, so I’m just super excited for her.”

Krause was a full participant during the team’s open practice at Amalie Arena Wednesday, but she still isn’t back to full strength. If she’s able to play at all in Tampa, Cook said it would be in a minor role.

“She’s getting close,” Cook said. “It would be maybe spot duty, but she can’t play a long match yet; she’s not conditioned. But she’s getting close. I wish we had another few weeks here.”

Krause was averaging 2.50 kills per set on .285 hitting before suffering the injury. Ally Batenhorst has started in her place since, contributing 2.30 kills per set on .199 hitting.

You May Also Like

Huskers Sign John Cook to Extension Through 2028 Season

Huskers Sign John Cook to Extension Through 2028 Season

Fresh off a national runner-up finish and 33-win season, Nebraska has signed head volleyball coach John Cook to a contract extension through the 2028 season. The new five-year contract, which begins on June 1, bumps Cook's salary up $75,000 to $825,000 annually and...

Krause, Freshman Shine in Nebraska Spring Match

Krause, Freshman Shine in Nebraska Spring Match

Red-clad fans lined the sidewalks outside the UNK Health & Sports Center on Saturday as the Cornhuskers arrived well in advance of their spring match in Kearney. The doors didn’t open to the public until 90 minutes prior to the exhibition's 2 p.m. start, but the...

Huskers Set to Close Out Spring in Kearney with Exhibition

Huskers Set to Close Out Spring in Kearney with Exhibition

Saturday afternoon’s spring exhibition against Denver will provide the Nebraska volleyball team with a chance to set foot on the court in front of fans for the first time since falling to Texas in the 2023 national championship match in December. The UNK Health and...