One year ago, Nebraska volleyball’s season ended in the regional semifinal round with a loss to Oregon. While this year’s team features five new starters, the returners have let the newcomers know what that disappointment felt like.
“I know we’ve talked as a team, and a lot of the team is new and wasn’t here last year, but just from some of the returners from last year and just how we weren’t satisfied at all with how that season ended,” junior captain Lexi Rodriguez said. “This is a whole new team, a very competitive group of girls, and I think we’re all just ready to get out there and just keep taking it game by game. I know that Bekka [Allick] is fired up and ready to make it a lot farther this year.”
A big difference for this year’s team is the Huskers won’t be on the road this weekend. Nebraska is hosting a regional for the first time since 2016. With the home match comes an early start time, however: 1 p.m. CT on Thursday.
“We’re excited to be in the Lincoln, Nebraska, regional and fired up to play at 1 o’clock tomorrow,” Coach John Cook said. “The only thing I have to say today is I’m surprised the governor hasn’t canceled everything tomorrow so everybody can watch this match. Since they put us at 1 o’clock assuming that we know Nebraska will sell out, and our fans better be ready to blow off the roof tomorrow.”
Cook said the students will probably be in line at 6 a.m. Thursday and he expects the fans to be fired up no matter what. Merritt Beason said the team’s earlier practice on Wednesday is helping to prepare them for the afternoon match.
“I’ve played a lot of matches here, and I feel like no matter what time of day it is, what time of the year it is, it’s always packed,” Rodriguez said. “It’s always loud, and they’re always just ready to cheer us on and support us, so I know Husker nation will show up, and they’ll bring it, so I’m excited to see that.”
The top-seeded Huskers are welcoming No. 5 Georgia Tech to the Devaney Center on Thursday. The Yellow Jackets are 24-6 this season and went 13-5 in ACC play. Only two players have played in every set so far this season and only five of them have played in at least 100 sets.
Senior outside hitter Tamara Otene is leading the way at 3.64 kills per set on .209 hitting. Junior outside hitter Bianca Bertolino is averaging 3.04 kills per set on .231 hitting. Freshman pin Larissa Mendes isn’t far behind at 2.74 kills per set on .236 hitting. As a team, Georgia Tech is hitting .251 and holding its opponents to .182.
“They run a lot of different lineups; I don’t know if that’s part of their design or they don’t know who they want to play,” Cook said. “But they can do 6-2 or 5-1, and that’s kind of Brazilian style. They’re Brazilian coaches. They have four or five Brazilian players on their team and a girl from Argentina. That’s one thing, they’re very good volleyball players. You can tell they’re experienced. They’ve got all the shots. They’ve played a really tough schedule. They’ve competed really well, and it’s a great regional semi matchup.”
The Yellow Jackets have ran two setters this season with senior Isabella D’Amico averaging 6.97 assists per set and freshman Heloise Soares adding 5.57 assists per set. Georgia Tech ran a 6-2 with both setters in the first two rounds of the tournament, a 3-1 win against South Alabama and a five-set win against No. 4 Florida in Gainesville.
“Obviously it’s different from a blocking stand point, just because you’re not in the 5-1 rotations,” Merritt Beason said. “I think for the most part it gives us a little bit of an advantage if we need to recycle and things like that. There’s always a setter in the back row we can go to and put them out of system, but I think for the most part there’s slight differences defensively just because there are attackers in the front row, compared to five normally. For the most part it’s volleyball, it’s going to happen and we’ve played Wisconsin who runs a 6-2. We’ve played teams that play a 6-2 this year so, just another game. It just so happens they run a 6-2.”
Cook came out of the first weekend with a check list of things to work on with his team in practice this week, and he said they continue to prioritize improvement even this late in the season.
“We are a much better team than we were two months ago and we are a much better team than we were a month ago,” Cook said. “Our level has gone up in pretty much every skill. This team loves to train. I never have a problem motivating them in practice, never, this whole year. They love to train and they love to get in there. What we try to do late in the season is keep upping the ante. You got to get one more in a row to get out of that drill. We just try to keep raising the level. They love it.”
One notable player who participated in practice on Wednesday is Lindsay Krause, the junior outside hitter who has missed Nebraska’s last 15 matches with a severe ankle injury. Ally Batenhorst has filled in for Krause at the L2 position and will likely continue to do so this weekend.
“She’s getting close, but she’s got to turn it loose in practice for whole practice,” Cook said. “We’re not there. We’ve gone through most of practice. She did everything today, but still a ways away.”
The other match at the Devaney Center on Thursday will pit No. 2 Kentucky against No. 3 Arkansas in an all-SEC regional semifinal, one of many quality matchups in Cook’s eyes.
“I think all of the matchups this year, I’m not sure if there’s ever been a year where I thought man there is going to be great matches all day tomorrow,” Cook said. “They’re all going to be super competitive … I can remember 10 years ago, our third round match, we might be playing somebody OK, but these are all great matches. All these teams have a really great shot of being in the Final Four.”
The Lincoln Regional Final is set for 5 p.m. CT at the Devaney Center. Both Nebraska’s match and the final will be televised on ESPNU.