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Huskers Set to Close Out Spring in Kearney with Exhibition

by May 3, 2024Nebraska Volleyball

Huskers Set to Close Out Spring in Kearney with Exhibition
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

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 Sports Center in Kearney won’t quite hold the 19,727 fans that packed Amalie Arena in Tampa, but the arena (capacity of 5,100) sold out in less than an hour when tickets went on sale — in person only, providing the locals a chance at first dibs.

“Lindsey [Peterson] told me that they sold out in 46 minutes and you had to pay cash,” Coach John Cook said. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean? I don’t even carry cash? Who does cash anymore?’ And the reason behind it was they wanted to make sure that people in Kearney would get tickets, because if you do it online, people from everywhere can get tickets and limit the number of opportunities for the people that live in the Kearney area. So that just tells you right there it’s going to be locals and that means a little more to us and it will mean a lot to them.”

Cook said he has been joining radio shows in central Nebraska recently to discuss the match and has heard the tone of excitement in the people’s voices in Kearney, which has been in line with what he’s experienced in each of the team’s exhibition stops around Nebraska.

“I just know the last couple of years, what it’s felt like and the reception that we get, and this is going to be another one that’s going to be really special,” Cook said.

Last year’s exhibition in Central City was Merritt Beason’s debut in a Husker jersey, and she felt the butterflies leading into the match. However, with a full season playing in the Devaney Center under her belt, she knows what to expect, and Saturday will be just another match.

“Now that I know what to expect and kind of have had Husker nation support me for an entire year and support our team and kind of understand what Husker nation is, it’ll be a little bit not as nerve-racking this go around just because I’ve been through it before,” Beason said. “But I think it’ll just be focusing on preparing the freshmen and trying to help them be OK in that environment.”

The two freshmen, outside hitter Skyler Pierce and defensive specialist Olivia Mauch, got a sneak peak of what it’s like to compete for the Huskers during the beach season, but Saturday will be their indoor debut in front of Nebraska fans, for which Pierce said she’s “super excited.”

“Definitely a little nervous but I’m so excited to be in front of the fans,” Pierce said. “I remember coming to the games and being one of those fans, so the fact that I’ll be on the court and be able to look up at everybody, it’s going to be awesome.”

Mauch is excited as well, though Saturday will be a bit different for her and her family as the Mauch’s lost their home in Bennington to tornado damage during last Friday’s storms. The court has provided comfort for her during a difficult time, and on Saturday she’ll get to share that with her family.

“I’m super excited,” Mauch said. “I can’t wait to be in the atmosphere with all the fans and stuff … Some of my other family will be there too. They’ve been helping a lot with everything … I think it’s going to be super nice to get away and just spend time with each other for a little bit and not have that on our minds.”

Cook said the two freshmen have impressed him the most of anybody on the team compared to his expectations heading into the spring.

“Those two have come in and they’ve raised the level of our gym, and typically freshmen are just trying to hang in there,” Cook said.

Cook said everyone will be available on Saturday, though he declined to share who would see the court. Later, Nebraska announced that sophomore outside hitter Harper Murray had been suspended following a citation for DUI among other offenses and would not play in the match.

Another exception is Ally Batenhorst, the outgoing transfer who continued training with the Huskers this spring. She went through her final drill as a Husker on Wednesday and will be joining USC for her final season of eligibility.

“Ally and I and her teammates, they’re very close,” Cook said. “She’s had great relationships her whole career here, so there’s nothing but mutual respect and I just want her to stay in touch and still feel part of Nebraska volleyball.”

Denver went 14-12 last season, but that included a 12-4 mark in Summit League play. The Pioneers came up just shy of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, falling to the Omaha Mavericks in five sets in the Summit League Tournament championship match.

The Pioneers lost most of their top producers, but starting setter Briley Decker is back after averaging 9.45 assists per set as a freshman, earning her a spot on the All-Summit League Freshman Team. Ava Reynolds is their top returning pin-hitter after averaging 2.17 kills per set as a sophomore, logging 13 starts.

Second-year Denver head coach Megan Pendergast spent two seasons at Nebraska as a defensive specialist. She was a Husker during the 2009 and 2010 seasons before finishing her career at Texas A&M.

Saturday will mark the conclusion of the spring season for Nebraska, and Cook is pleased with what his team has accomplished over the past six weeks and has a pretty good idea of what he’s going to see in Kearney.

“I already know how they’re going to perform,” Cook said. “They’re going to get after it. They have improved in every area of the game this spring. I told them I’m not sure we’ve ever had a team play at this high a level in the spring as we have this year. Part of it is because we’ve got a big group, Ally’s in there, but remember, our younger players are all a year older now, so they know what it’s like. And again, those freshmen did not lower the level, they raised the level.

“So it’s been a very, very competitive spring and I’m always tinkering, trying new drills. We did a couple new drills this week. They really like it. Probably in the fall, we’ll do the same drills over and over every day. But we tried some new drills and new training methods and different ways to teach and that makes it really enjoyable for me as a coach and it’s challenging for them and something new.”

First serve in Kearney is set for 2 p.m. CT, with the doors opening 90 minutes prior. The team will sign autographs for fans after the match. Nebraska Public Media will televised the match with Larry Punteney and Kathi Wieskamp on the call.

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