Last time Nebraska’s volleyball team suited up, the Huskers’ season ended in the regional finals with a 3-0 loss to the eventual national runner-up, Wisconsin.
It would take a full calendar year until the team knew their next scheduled opponent.
COVID-19 has turned the 2020 fall season into a conference-only slate played in the 2021 spring. Big Ten schools will play a 22-match schedule with teams facing each foe back-to-back.
Despite the unorthodox format, senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins expressed the team’s enthusiasm for a season that, at long last, is soon to arrive.
“I can’t even describe it, but it just seems so unreal at this point because we have been waiting so long,” Stivrins said at the team’s preseason press conference last Wednesday.
Stivrins also referenced the team’s “night-and-day” improvement since the 2019 season as a reason for excitement within the program. That 2019 team finished with a 28-5 record, but failed to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2014.
This year’s Final Four returns to the CHI Health Center in Omaha, where the Huskers won national titles in 2006 and 2015. While it may be too early to tell if this 2020-2021 team can find similar success, head coach John Cook has been encouraged by the progress his team has made amid unusual circumstances.
“There’s been a lot of great learning going on,” Cook said at the press conference. “At times we’re showing things at a very high level.”
Cook cautioned that his improvement comes with the caveat that this team hasn’t played a live match in 13 months. Matches are the “real test” of a team’s strength, according to the veteran head coach.
Evaluating the team after a year without matches might start with the amount of real, game-time experience on the roster. Nebraska will be led by four seniors, three of whom are multi-year starters. Stivrins, who is one of two captains on the team, is coming off back-to-back all-American seasons.
Cook said that the team’s focus and improvement during the long break can be largely credited to veteran leadership.
“I’m going to give our captains and seniors a ton of credit for holding it all together,” Cook said. “These are young people and this is a weird time for everyone.”
Senior outside hitters Lexi Sun and Jazz Sweet, along with Stivrins, complete a trio of seniors who started in Nebraska’s national championship appearances in 2017 and 2018.
Defensive specialist Hayley Densberger brings senior experience to a position that lost starter Megan Miller, who transferred to Northwestern. Densberger will compete with redshirt freshman Emma Gabel and true freshman Keonilei Akana. Sophomore Kenzie Knuckles has locked up the libero role after starting there as a true freshman.
Nebraska’s core of experienced players also includes its other captain, junior setter Nicklin Hames. Another Husker who began their college career as a true freshman starter, Hames is as ready as anybody to play another live match.
That means taking all necessary precautions to ensure a full season is played.
“We all have goals in mind for this season, and we want to make sure we’re all doing the best we can outside of here so that we can have a successful season,” Hames said at the preseason press conference.
COVID-19 invariably affects all aspects of the upcoming season, including scheduling. The back-to-back schedule format implemented by the Big Ten is intended to limit travel and potential exposures. Players will stay in fewer hotels throughout the year.
There is no set protocol on match cancellations if players are out due to COVID-19 protocols. Cook anticipates that a match would be scratched if a team is missing all players at a critical position, such as setter.
Potential roster changes due to COVID-19 have put a greater emphasis on team depth. November’s Red-White scrimmage highlighted some new additions, particularly at middle blocker. True freshman Kalynn Meyer and junior grad transfer Kayla Caffey, from Missouri, were two leading attackers from the exhibition. Even so, they would still have to dethrone a two-year starter in junior Callie Schwarzenbach.
Along with a familiar roster and unfamiliar protocols, the program brings back a known contributor from its most recent national title-winning team. Tyler Hildebrand returns to the coaching staff after a one-year stint that ended in a championship in 2017. Hildebrand now has an associate head coach title with Nebraska after spending the last two years as director of coaching with USA Volleyball’s beach team.
When Hildebrand was hired in January 2020, he said in a press release that “one year wasn’t enough.” Little did anyone know that he’d have to wait another full year before coaching in a match.
Despite the unprecedented nature of the upcoming season, the team has still created their traditional motto for the year. They just haven’t revealed it yet.
“You’ve got to stay tuned when it's unveiled,” Cook said at the press conference. “Our social media people will unveil it. It’s going to be epic.”
Whether the season will be equally memorable will depend on how well the roster conquers both internal and external challenges. That test begins when Nebraska travels to play Indiana on Jan. 22.