Nebraska took care of business against No. 5 Georgia Tech in impressive fashion on Thursday, which means the top-seeded Huskers will get to play in front of the Devaney Center crowd one last time this season with a trip to Tampa for the Final Four on the line.
The Huskers are grateful for the support the home crowd has provided up to this point, including the 8,500-plus that showed up for a mid-day match on a work/school day.
“It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s just a sense of support and love and that they’re on the court there with you,” Lexi Rodriguez said. “They’re always very loud and I think they just have a good understanding of volleyball that they know when they should get louder and when they should cheer extra. I think that’s a special thing is they know good volleyball and they know when we kind of need a little pick me up.”
Nebraska’s opponent will be Arkansas, the only three seed to advance to the Regional Final. After going 0-2 against their SEC counterpart during the regular season, the Razorbacks took down the No. 2 Wildcats in five sets on Thursday afternoon.
“I thought yesterday Arkansas versus Kentucky was a great match; it could’ve gone either way,” Coach John Cook said. “Arkansas played great at the end to win that. They’ve got some fierce competitors, they do some things really well, and this is going to be an epic match tomorrow.
All three starting pins stand under 6 feet tall for the Razorbacks, led by senior Jill Gillian who had 20 kills on .391 hitting and 12 digs against Kentucky. At 5-foot-7, she’s averaging 4.15 kills per set on .248 hitting this season. Seniors Maggie Cartwright (5-foot-11, 2.77 kills per set) and Taylor Head (5-foot-10, 3.98 kills per set) also notched double-digit kills against the Wildcats.
“They have a good system, they’re trying to go fast and out quick you, and when you’re smaller that’s a great plan to have and they’re very good at it,” Cook said. “To be a great attacker it doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short or whatever. It’s your arm speed, your vision, how creative you are. Those are all the things that allow hitters to be successful.”
Junior setter Hannah Hogue, who is also just 5-foot-8, is averaging 11.27 assists per set this season while guiding her team to a .263 hitting percentage. She had 43 assists and 17 digs on Thursday.
Junior opposite Merritt Beason played against the Arkansas program in the SEC the previous two years while she was at Florida.
“I just remember they always played fearless, whether they were the underdog, they were the smaller team,” Beason said. “No matter what, they always just gave it their best shot. They gave their best effort and I know they always gave us a run for our money and a lot of players on that team can go off when they need to. We just have to be prepared for that tomorrow, but I would say ‘fearless’ is a very good word to describe that team.”
The Razorbacks also have a Nebraska native on their roster in sophomore defensive specialist Kylie Weeks. The Elkhorn South grad won a Class A state championship in 2020 alongside former Husker Rylee Gray. Weeks has played in 10 matches this season, primarily as a serving specialist, and has nine digs.
Nebraska will be on a true one-day prep on Saturday as Cook said he and his staff spent all their time preparing the team for Georgia Tech. He saw the Kentucky and Arkansas match as a toss-up and so decided to wait until they knew who they would play to really dive in. Fortunately, Cook said, the Big Ten season has prepared the Huskers for this kind of situation.
“When we have three days to prepare for somebody, we can dial them in really well,” Cook said. “Today is a little bit different because we didn’t spend any time on Kentucky or Arkansas … One of the good things about playing in the Big Ten is you have to prepare for two teams or you have to play a match, then 20 hours later, you’re playing another team. You have to be able to flip it to a different mode, and a different gameplan, and that’s something we’re training all the time, train it practice, and train it during the Big Ten season so these guys are used to it.”
At No. 9 in the pre-tournament AVCA poll, Arkansas is the highest-ranked team to visit the Devaney Center since Wisconsin on Oct. 21. Cook is expecting the a tough test, and he’s also expecting the home crowd to rise to the occasion to create an incredible atmosphere.
“There’s electricity in Devaney, you can feel it, you can sense it,” Cook said. “It comes from our crowd, and I think there is going to be a lot of pent-up excitement with our crowd to see and witness a regional against two great teams that are going to play their hearts out. This is what sports is all about. There’s a lot on the line for this, and it’s going to be a really, really competitive match. That’s what takes this time of year to win a regional, you’re going to have to dig down deep.”
Nebraska raised its level of play considerably from the first weekend to the second, and Cook said after the match on Thursday that he thinks the team thrives on the big stage. He views their toughest matches as the ones against lesser competition. Friday will be as big of a stage as the sport has short of the Final Four.
“I think, the team as a whole, we’re just all competitors, and so we live for those games,” Beason said. “Personally, I would rather have a team that shows up really well in the big games and I would rather struggle in the smaller games, if we’re going to struggle in one of them. I think we’re all just really, really competitive, so we live for those moments. We live for the teams that are going to make really good plays and that are going to push us. We want teams to bring a lot of energy right back at us. We want them to test us. I think that just brings out the best in all of us and I think it comes from all of us being super competitive.”
A win would punch Nebraska’s ticket to Tampa for the Final Four — and a return trip to the state of Florida for the former Gator, Beason. A year ago around this time, Beason was in the portal and searching for a new home. Now she has a chance to lead that new team to the game’s biggest stage.
“It’s so special and this is the program that I would want to be doing it with,” Beason said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be here and to be in this position. I’m super excited to see how far we can go and to see what we can do next. It’s kind of crazy when you think about a year ago today, it was a completely different scene that I was in. I’m just super grateful for the opportunity to be here.”
First serve on Saturday is set for 5 p.m. CT on ESPNU.