The curtain comes down Saturday when five seniors play their final regular-season game at No. 10 Nebraska's storied Coliseum. Unranked Northwestern, the team that upset the 2011 Big Ten champion Huskers in their regular-season finale last year in Evanston, is officially listed as the opponent for this historic match.
But anyone who's been inside NU's Coliseum knows Saturday night's real foe, and it's a one-word name ... nostalgia, something that will be at the highest level as five Husker seniors not only bid farewell to their own regular-season home, but also say good-bye to the official residence of Big Red Volleyball for 37 years.
We'll let Hannah Werth describe the Coliseum vibes that will forever live in her heart here shortly, but rest assured a captain's journey is no more important than the rite of passage taken by four fellow seniors. A senior from Springfield, Ill., Werth is the first to tell you that. With that in mind, imagine how difficult it will be when Werth and these four senior teammates become the last Huskers to serve, set, pass, hit, dig and block in one of Nebraska's most historic venues ever:
Lauren Cook, a 5-8 senior setter from Lincoln (Neb.) Pius X
Paige Hubl, a 5-6 senior serving/defensive specialist from Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast
Gina Mancuso, a 6-1 senior outside hitter from Omaha (Neb.) Papillion-LaVista
Allison McNeal, a 6-3 senior middle blocker from Schulenburg (Texas)
Hannah Werth, a 6-1 senior outside hitter from Springfield, (Ill.) Glenwood
May a Husker fan out there be lucky enough to catch a miniature volleyball from any one of those five and get it signed when the post-match pomp and circumstance of Saturday's special night ends.
Huskers Peaking at Right Time
In the interim, let's check in with Werth, who had 13 kills on 20 attempts (a .550 hitting percentage) in Wednesday night's three-set sweep of overmatched Iowa. Still, Iowa's 36 points were the fewest scored against Nebraska since the Huskers swept Alabama A&M in an NCAA Tournament match seven years ago. It came on the heels of another Nebraska sweep three nights earlier at Wisconsin, and it gives Werth valid hope that the Huskers might be peaking at the right time.
And that's good because on Sunday, the Huskers are expected to be selected to host first- and second-round matches in the 2012 NCAA Volleyball Tournament. Nebraska Coach John Cook credits his seniors for their focus and energy, and even Shawn Eickhorst, who will become Nebraska's athletic director on Jan. 1, 2013, is envisioning the Huskers making a national championship run that could include a regional tournament reward if the Huskers can emerge from the expected official Goodbye Coliseum Tour next weekend.
We interrupt this announcement to remind Husker fans everywhere that the Coliseum has a trap door that's rarely been used over nearly four decades. But somehow Kansas State found that door less than a year ago, and that should be incentive enough to make the next three possible Coliseum matches the highest priority Cook can assign.
Now that you understand what's all at stake, let's re-introduce Werth, who begins our interview with a funny, but simple question: "So you want to know what's going on in that crazy-colored head of mine?" she asks.
And we're off and running.
Focusing on the Stretch Drive
"I haven't fully comprehended the magnitude of this situation," Werth said, admitting she was looking forward to having Thanksgiving dinner Thursday with teammate Lara Dykstra and her family. "I will say that I haven't fully accepted that this is the end of my Nebraska volleyball career coming up. It's really a few more weeks, not only for me, but for this entire senior class and seniors we've all grown up with across the entire nation.
"As a college athlete, it's been building up in my mind," Werth said. "We're getting close to the end-all, be-all, and you suddenly realize that most people live their whole life and are not lucky enough or fortunate enough to face the challenge we're getting ready to face or have the opportunity we have to make history.
"There are so many things just float in front of you - not just volleyball, but having your health and being blessed with things that go way beyond athletics," Werth said. "I haven't really thought about the environment it's going to be like down the stretch because that's when we get ourselves in trouble.
"For all of us, these last four years are so much more than just volleyball. It's what we've all gained through all of our ups and downs," Werth said. "I've been through a lot, and I know that people look at me and say: 'Oh, Hannah's so happy and she's so outgoing. She always has a smile on our face, and she's always laughing and dancing.' But behind closed doors, it's not always happiness and smiles. It's hard work. It's the determination and effort that we all have to put in when no one is watching. It's all the extra hours and additional energy that it takes to be a top athlete and on top of your game."
It's All About the Journey
For Werth personally, that's what makes volleyball so emotional. "We always hear that it's the journey, not the destination," she said. "The path we're on is already here, and it's beautiful. I mean, it's not perfect whatsoever and if it was, the good stuff wouldn't be what it is without the bad stuff."
Werth grew up in a home where her brother, father, grandfather and uncle have four World Series Championship rings among them. Her sister was the nation's top heptathlete in track and field. She went to UCLA and battled more than one injury, but is now a highly successful artist and businesswoman living in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, at age 24. Their mom was a national-caliber athlete, too, at the University of Florida. Olympian Jackie Joyner broke her mom's long jump record, but her mom's legacy goes beyond performance. She was a pioneer of sport - a woman that helped push Title IX into our national conscience.
Hannah Werth is a bit of a pioneer herself, breaking away from the family mold, rebelling and becoming the family's first volleyball player. Her parents influenced her, but she's glad she didn't get coached by her mother like her sister did or get coached by her father like her brother did.
"We have a lot of energy and a lot of intensity in our family," Werth said. "When we have holidays, sometimes everyone needs to call a timeout."
Every Senior Deserves Respect
Werth knows every senior has a different story and every senior will get nothing but the utmost respect from John Cook, who said earlier this week that every player who finishes a senior season at Nebraska, whether an All-American or a walk-on, deserves more than just polite applause. "Anyone who makes it through this program," Cook said, deserves all the respect in the world.
"We've been far from perfect, but we've learned how to finish," Werth said. "We've learned how to fight and win certain battles, and that's definitely going to help us as we prepare to fight the whole war (the NCAA Tournament that ends with the semifinals and finals in Louisville Dec. 13 and Dec. 15)."
Werth sees disappointing losses as scar tissue. She sees great comebacks against two No. 1-ranked teams (UCLA and Penn State) as signs of character. And she sees a team that wants two more matches in the Coliseum after Saturday night and then two additional matches a week later at Omaha's Century Link Center. But that's just acknowledging a question, not something that keeps popping through her head.
"At Nebraska, we've learned that everything is day-to-day and every match is point-to-point," she said. "That's the only way we can look at the world and succeed."
For those interested in The Road to Louisville, a full bracket of pairings will be announced Sunday in a 3 p.m. (CT) NCAA selection show on ESPNU.
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