It was just before 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. At halftime of the Nebraska women’s basketball game against Drake, the Nebraska volleyball team was welcomed back to the state.
Each player exited the tunnel and met the cheering Husker faithful. Volleyball head coach John Cook then stood at midcourt and gave a speech thanking the fans and promising them that the team will be back for next year’s Final Four.
A promise made not even 24 hours after being handed the second place trophy.
After 17 weeks and 33 battles for the Nebraska volleyball team, it all culminated with the moment of truth at the 2021 NCAA women’s volleyball National Championship. But to simply say Nebraska came up short when it fell to Wisconsin in five sets would be an understatement of the season that the Huskers had.
The season started off rather odd for Nebraska. Just over four months prior to their first match of the 2021 season, the Huskers had concluded their 2020 season, which was pushed to the spring semester due to COVID-19. Along with the shortened offseason, Nebraska was also heading into the season with three freshmen that ended up playing pivotal roles for the 2021 campaign.
When the Huskers reached the national championship, freshmen outside hitters Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst and freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez were all contributing factors in the five-set war. Krause ended the season earning First Team All-Big Ten honors while Rodriguez was named American Volleyball Coaches Association Freshman of the Year, a first for any libero in the award’s history.
Fortunately for the freshmen, they still had plenty of upperclassmen to guide them through their first year at the collegiate level. But of the 10 upperclassmen, five were seniors, and some were seemingly playing their final year of college volleyball. Some had been in Lincoln for just under two years, while others had been there for six years.
For not just the freshmen, but for the sophomores and juniors as well, they were given one last year of guidance from their seniors: setter Nicklin Hames, outside hitter Lexi Sun and middle blockers Kayla Caffey, Callie Schwarzenbach and Lauren Stivrins.
But it wasn’t just the seniors the freshman looked up to. With teammates like sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana, sophomore setter Anni Evans, junior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles and junior outside Madi Kubik, the freshmen still have players that will be with them for not just this season but the next.
As for the season itself, it started off similarly enough to any Nebraska season, as it claimed yet another Husker Invitational and Ameritas Players Challenge title. However, both invites showed early signs that the Huskers were a long way from unstoppable. It started with the team’s second match of the season against Kansas State. After going up 2-0, Nebraska suffered an eye-opening 25-11 loss in set three of the match.
Then in set four, the Huskers fell behind 12-6 before sparking a comeback and taking the match with a 25-22 win. Nearly a week later, Nebraska faced its first five-set match of the season against in-state foe Omaha, but the Huskers came out with another victory and eventually the invitational. This was then followed by Nebraska’s battle with its first ranked opponent of the season against then-No. 19 Creighton.
Despite the in-state rivalry and struggles against the Mavericks, the Huskers blanked the Bluejays with a 3-0 sweep, improving their record to 6-0. Unfortunately, the same could not be said with Nebraska’s next match against then-No. 20 Utah. After going up 2-0 over the Utes and coming within a match point of completing the sweep, Utah came back and took the next three sets for a reverse sweep.
This would only be the start of a three-match slump for Nebraska, with each loss getting worse. Following the fall to the Utes, the Huskers then suffered a 3-1 defeat to then-No. 16 Stanford before being handed an agonizing 3-0 loss to then-No. 5 Louisville. Just like that, Nebraska was 6-3. Working as a wake-up call for the team, the Huskers quickly bounced back from the losing streak as they entered Big Ten conference play.
It started with a 3-1 win over Northwestern and then a 3-0 sweep over Iowa. Momentum only continued to grow for the Huskers as Stivrins made a triumphant return to the court against Michigan following back surgery in the offseason. After two more wins, Nebraska faced another colossal challenge in the form of then-No. 13 Penn State on the road.
This time around, the Huskers took down the Nittany Lions 3-1. Four wins later, Nebraska had yet another ranked opponent in the form of then-No. 7 Purdue. Much like Penn State, the Huskers dealt the Boilermakers a 3-1 win. Nebraska was 10-0 in Big Ten play but hadn’t gone face-to-face with what soon became its championship opponent. Then-No. 3 Wisconsin swatted down the Huskers and crushed them 3-0 in Lincoln.
Three days later, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with yet another ranked conference foe, that being then-No. 11 Minnesota. However, despite the valiant effort by the Huskers taking the Golden Gophers to five sets in Minneapolis, it ended up as yet another loss. Although Nebraska rebounded with a 3-0 sweep over then-No. 25 Illinois, the team was swept by then-No. 7 Ohio State giving them a record of 16-6 with only six matches left in the regular season.
The Huskers had fallen from the top of the Big Ten, but another surge was in the works.
The Huskers claimed four consecutive victories, including a forfeit win against Rutgers, and another big win was a sweep over then-No. 15 Penn State on Senior Night.
Once again, Nebraska had to go up against then-No. 5 Wisconsin, this time for the Big Ten title. Much like the first match, the Badgers took down the Huskers, this time 3-1. Nebraska did snatch one more win over then-No. 6 Purdue to end the regular season on a high note and go to the NCAA Tournament with a 21-7 record.
With the tenth seed and playing host in rounds one and two, the Huskers had a straightforward week one. Nebraska dealt sweeps over Campbell and then Florida State to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. However, the Huskers weren’t in the easiest region of the bracket. Before entering week two, they were seemingly going to face No. 7, defending national champion Kentucky, then No. 2 Texas.
Fortunately for Nebraska, Illinois lightened the load by shocking Kentucky with a 3-1 win in the second round. With that, the Huskers swept the Fighting Illini for the third time of the season in the Sweet Sixteen match. Then came the regional final against Texas. Nebraska had fallen victim to the Longhorns in this spot just eight months prior. It was here that, for two straight seasons, Nebraska had failed to punch its ticket to the Final Four. It also didn’t help that the Huskers were playing the Longhorns in Austin, Texas with an hostile Texas crowd.
But Nebraska wasn’t going to make it three straight Elite Eight defeats, as it took down the Longhorns 3-1. Just like that, the Huskers were heading back to the Final Four for the first time since 2018. In the semifinal match, Nebraska faced another one seed in No. 3 Pittsburgh, who in set one came out swinging with a 25-16 win. But as they continued to do all season, the Huskers continued fighting.
After a hard-fought battle, Nebraska knocked off the Panthers 3-1 and was heading back to the championship match. The opponent was No. 3 Wisconsin. Not only was this the Huskers’ third bout of the season against the Badgers, but this was the second time the two teams have met at the national championship. The first time was all the way back in 2000 when Nebraska defeated Wisconsin 3-2 to give Cook his first title as head coach. The irony of this win was also the fact that Cook was the Badgers head coach two years prior.
Twenty-one years later, the two teams once again went to five sets to determine the champion. For the Huskers, a victory here could cement the 2021 season as his finest coaching job yet. As for the Badgers, this was their chance for the program’s first ever national championship. To top it all off, the match came down the wire. After Wisconsin jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the match, Nebraska continued the fight and forced a fifth set.
Even with all that grit, heart and spirit, it just wasn’t enough. Despite the tear-jerking quell, there was a reason Cook promised the fans of Nebraska they would be back.
He saw the road they traveled and knew they could do it again.
“This team went on a great run,” Cook said at halftime. “We had a heck of a road to go through to get to where we got to last night. We’ve been on the road for what felt like a month. They made Nebraska proud.”