LINCOLN — This was the greatest stage of Nebraska volleyball. Until the next one.
This was the most important nonconference game ever. The largest crowd. The biggest noise.
Yes, yes, yes. Until the next time. The beauty of Nebraska volleyball is, there’s always another ceiling to crash.
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But even coach John Cook said this incredible Stanford-Nebraska night — which ended in a Cardinal victory — was different. There was something about this one he hadn’t yet seen.
Nebraska volleyball became a scene.
“It was kind of a Who’s Who in Nebraska here tonight,” Cook said.
Cook started taking note before the game as he stopped by a tailgate party sponsored by NU President Susan Fritz. Then as he walked to the Devaney Center, he saw them.
“The students were lined up outside, 90 minutes before the game,” Cook said. “They were backed up all the way to the old track office.”
Then Cook went up to his third-floor office, which includes a suite. Guess who’s coming to dinner?
“Howard Hawks was in my suite,” Cook said of the NU regent and one of the school’s largest donors. “He was eating a hot dog in my suite while I was putting on my socks.
“I’m going to hear it from Howard. He hates to lose.”
Cook said he saw several CEOs of local businesses, folks who might take in a game once in a while. The difference: They were all here tonight.
Unfortunately, some out-of-state luminaries were also in the building.
The defending NCAA champs won the match in four sets. The Cardinal have a team full of seniors and All-Americans. They are 4-1 in their past five matches, beating No. 7 Florida, No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Penn State and No. 1 Nebraska, with a loss to No. 8 Minnesota.
The defending champs have a lot of answers, and when Nebraska did expose them and found a leak, Stanford just called a Plummer. Kathryn Plummer, the reigning two-time national player of the year, had 19 kills on the edge. The only time she seemed to miss was at the end of the second set, when she was called for hitting the antenna.
With the match tied 1-1, Stanford came out of the break and systematically took control. By the midway point of the fourth set, the Cardinal had taken the air out of the building and the great crowd was hushed.
Stanford won, but they couldn’t ruin this evening.
Nebraska fans won, Nebraska atmosphere won, Nebraska volleyball won.
Win or lose on the court, it was going to be that way. And the only question before was whether the crowd’s voltage could energize the younger Huskers and lift them to an amazing win.
Like their team, they had their moments. And they were incredible ones. High-level noises. Historic ones for people whose ears keep records.
Asked to rank the atmosphere, Cook said, “Top five. And it would have been insane if we could have taken them to a fifth set.”
Surely, we’ve asked the coach that question before. And no doubt we’ll ask him again.
We’ve been here before, in the NU Coliseum. And then the first big games of the Devaney Center.
That 2008 Final Four game against Penn State in Omaha was the biggest noise. Until the 2015 national championship game with Texas.
And all the crazy loud matches against Penn State, Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Devaney Center.
This one was different, because it was about the NCAA title rematch and revenge and the top two ranked teams on the same court. And yes, that stunning black court made it more special, elevated the evening even more if that was possible.
But the thing about Nebraska volleyball is, next time is never far away, always around the next corner. Especially in the Big Ten, the best league in college volleyball, packed with top-10 teams and a three-month-long Final Four derby.
Nebraska volleyball always seems to top itself, and that’s why this school and program are different, why local media pack the press rows and interview room, why the biggest donors around find their way into the volleyball coach’s suite.
On Wednesday night, the $11 standing room area at the very top of the arena was filled, all the way around.
“This was different,” Cook said. “That’s the beauty of this volleyball program. People are in love with this program.”
Even Stanford coach Kevin Hambly paused before leaving his postgame press conference to say, “The crowd was amazing. You guys are great. Thanks for being such gracious hosts.”
Stanford will resume its No. 1 ranking next week and Nebraska might drop a few spots. This Husker team has a long way to go; no seniors, four freshmen. But nobody’s going to feel sorry for a team that has big talents like Lexi Sun, Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet.
And that’s the thing about Nebraska volleyball. It’s always in the top 10, and it’s going to be in the mix for the Big Ten title. This team may not win the Big Ten or make the Final Four.
But check back in two months, because, as Cook reminds, last year’s NCAA finalist had freshman starters, too.
How did the players react to the loss? Disappointed, Cook said, and wanting to replay the big moments where they fell short.
“What really matters is how they come in tomorrow,” Cook said.
There’s a built-in luxury of being a Husker volleyball player. Some teams might react to losing such a hyped-up game by falling flat and struggling mentally the rest of the way.
But this is Nebraska volleyball. This won’t be the last biggest ever match. There’s always another big moment to chase, another big noise to hear. See you next time.