John Cook

Nebraska coach John Cook looks to the court after a Stanford point during the match at The Bob Devaney Center on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

At 4:43 p.m., about one hour and 15 minutes before Nebraska volleyball’s 2021 home opener against Northwestern, head coach John Cook broke the shocking news to his team about what was supposed to be their first home match in over a year.

“[The players] were in disbelief. They didn’t believe me and thought we were playing a joke on them,” Cook said in yesterday’s press conference.

Earlier that Friday morning, a Northwestern player had tested positive for COVID-19 through a rapid test, which initiated another test to determine whether or not the result was a false positive. Cook said the second test was sent up to Omaha for another run through. 

That too came out positive, meaning the weekend series between the teams was postponed. 

Nebraska players were sent home following the official announcement on Friday before playing a game-like scrimmage the next day. Family of the players watched as the Huskers practiced against one another on what could have been gameday.

Nebraska lost just two games as the result of the Wildcats’ positive COVID-19 case. Northwestern, meanwhile, has paused team activities and postponed five games -- including the series with Nebraska. The Wildcats are slated to return on Feb. 13 against Illinois. Northwestern is the third Big Ten volleyball team to have a positive case, as both Michigan and Penn State have not played a match yet due to outbreaks.

A quick glimpse at Northwestern’s schedule sees its next three games postponed, the home Michigan series this upcoming weekend and a match at Illinois on Feb. 9. 

“What’s more worrying is Northwestern now if they’re shut down for three weeks, half of their season is over by the time they get to play again.” Cook said. “Penn State and Michigan are going through that now. That’s the big nightmare right there.”

As of now, Northwestern is set to be on pause for just under two weeks. However, these postponements are not set in stone. In the same Tuesday press conference, Cook referenced Nebraska men’s basketball 20-day break as a possible situation for Northwestern volleyball.

After the Northwestern series was canceled, Nebraska tried to schedule a last-second series with Michigan State. The Spartans’ series against Michigan last weekend was postponed, but there was another opening, as Penn State also paused team activities ahead of its matchup with Ohio State.  

Instead of playing Nebraska, the Spartans wound up playing the Buckeyes on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Cook said that the Big Ten is willing to move around games if there is an opening, and he sees this as the most likely way to make up lost games in the 2021 season.

“That’s how the postponements are going to be made up, it’s the easiest way to do it, “Cook said. “I don’t see us playing four matches in a week. There’s no way.”

With an already cramped conference schedule, it is unlikely that Nebraska will get both games back against Northwestern or play a make-up two game series against another Big Ten team as of now.

Those lost games also are consequential in the big picture, as the NCAA Volleyball Tournament reduced its 2021 field from 64 to 48 teams. There are still 32 automatic qualifiers, which are the conference champions, along with just 16 at-large spots.

In the 2019 NCAA Tournament, six Big Ten teams qualified with at-large bids. That comes out to about 18% of the total 2019 at-larges. In 2021, 18% of the at-large bids would mean just three Big Ten teams.

In 2019, only Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State would have made a shortened NCAA Tournament. All four teams finished with at least a .800 win percentage in conference play and were at least three games ahead of fifth-place Purdue.

The best case for the Nittany Lions, at the moment, is just 18 matches, leaving them little room for error if they want to make the NCAA Tournament again. If the first few weeks of the season are any indication, there will probably be more teams experiencing an outbreak that could create a league-wide domino effect.

Michigan, a 2019 NCAA Tournament team, could be out of the running for a tournament spot almost by default. The Wolverines’ athletic department announced a pause up to two weeks on Jan. 23, and Northwestern, the Wolverines’ scheduled opponent for Feb. 5 and 6, is also on pause. Barring Michigan volleyball being cleared to play and finding a new opponent, it will have missed the first six games of its season, or over a quarter of the schedule. 

If everything breaks right, the Huskers will play 20 regular season matches.That should be a good amount of matches for the selection committee to evaluate whether Nebraska should make the tournament if the Huskers do not win the Big Ten. However, in a season with so much uncertainty, Cook said he’s prepared his team for any and all obstacles, no matter if the Huskers have control of the situation or not.

“I’ve been prepping them for a year. You just got to take it day by day,” Cook said. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”