LINCOLN — Nebraska doesn’t need to look far to remember how close it was to winning the national championship last year. Hanging on the walls of its locker room are photos of Stanford celebrating its win over the Huskers in the title match.
NU, which dropped the fifth and decisive set 15-12, has used the memories and emotions from that disappointing finish as motivation this offseason. Now the Huskers are ready to show off the results of their work as they open practice Saturday.
The loss “really created a monster that’s grown inside of us that we are ready to unleash in the next couple of months,” junior outside hitter Jazz Sweet said. “We’ve seen pictures of it over and over for the past eight months, and so we are ready to get back out there.”
Coach John Cook said he’s also harped on those three points all offseason. He said two of the points in the fifth set came via errors that coaches preach should never happen.
“That haunts me,” Cook said. “I don’t know if it’s kept me up, but it’s motivated me to do a better job of coaching so if we’re in that position again we’re going to make those plays and not let those things happen.”
The Huskers won’t have to wait long to measure themselves against the defending national champions: They host Stanford on Sept. 18 at the Devaney Center.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where we don’t think about it,” junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “We were so close. We’ve used it as motivation every single day. No one wants to experience that pain ever again.”
The team left to improve on last year’s runner-up finish is unlike any others in Cook’s 20-year tenure as head coach. NU doesn’t have any seniors on the roster and includes 11 players who are either freshmen or sophomores.
Nebraska welcomes six freshmen to this team, including Madi Kubik from West Des Moines and Kenzie Knuckles of Yorktown, Indiana, who enrolled for spring semester. The latest addition to the class came when Nicole Drewnick of Dallas reclassified up a year and joined the program in May. Drewnick trained with the Brazilian youth national team last year while taking online classes. Rather than return to her mother’s home country, she opted to graduate early and enroll at Nebraska.
With such a young team, Cook started prepping Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames in January to take on leadership roles. They had a book club over “The Culture Code” and talked frequently about expectations of being a leader.
Stivrins and Hames were officially announced as captains on Friday. Both embraced the role and are ready for the challenges ahead.
“When (Cook) told me, I was shocked and nervous at first because I was so young and I hadn’t been in the program very long,” Hames said. “But my teammates have been supportive about it. They tell me that they trust me. It also gives me a lot of confidence to have Lauren by my side.”
The young team developed chemistry during a 17-day trip to Japan and China. Cook said he was impressed by how the team handled adversity and worked together during the trip.
Stivrins said she thinks the team developed a special bond.
“We were so far away from friends and family, so we really had to turn to each other and got to know each other at a much deeper level than I thought was possible,” Stivrins said. “It was cool to see how the relationships that we built off the court translate to on the court.”
The main challenge in fall camp will be figuring out how to replace the production and leadership of departed seniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, who qualified for four Final Fours and won two national titles.
At outside hitter, Cook said he hopes junior Lexi Sun steps up her game while sophomore Capri Davis and Kubik battle for the other starting spot. Knuckles, sophomore Megan Miller and junior Hayley Densberger will battle to be the starting libero.
Nebraska opens the season with the Red-White scrimmage on Aug. 24 before hosting in-state rival Creighton on Aug. 30. Cook said he is eager to get to work and figure out what kind of team he has after a productive offseason.
“They are a close-knit group and they’ve worked really hard,” he said. “We got a shot, so that’s all I want. I haven’t slept for the last couple nights just because I’m so excited for this season to start, and I’m really glad I feel that way because that’s the way it should be. This is a big deal.”