Photo by Lydia Asplin/Nebraska Communications

This We Will Defend: No. 2 Huskers Ready For Tests

By Brian Rosenthal

No matter what happens this weekend – and the Nebraska volleyball team has seen both ends of that spectrum – veteran head coach John Cook wants his players to play the same way they’ve been training.

If that means the Huskers bulldoze their way through Florida and Oregon in season-opening matches at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, then wonderful.

If that means fans will be grumbling after a couple of narrow losses and an uncharacteristic 0-2 start, well, so be it.

Nebraska has experienced both outcomes during this four-year run of the uber-competitive VERT Challenge.

Guess which one – ahem – marked the start of a national championship season?

“The first games don’t necessarily define who you are as a team or what you’re going to do the whole season,” Nebraska senior Mikaela Foecke said, referring to last year’s season-opening losses to Florida and Oregon.

“It’s going into the season open-minded and knowing it’s not about the beginning, it’s about pulling through in the end.”

That, Nebraska did, avenging the loss to Florida in the NCAA Tournament championship match in Kansas City, Missouri, to clinch the program’s fifth national title.

“This We Will Defend” is this team’s motto, but not necessarily for the reason you may believe.

“It’s not about defending last year’s championship,” Cook said. “It’s about, ‘We’re going to defend Nebraska volleyball,’ because we know we get everybody’s best shot, and this year will be no exception.”

Nebraska entered last season with so many unknowns, so many question marks. The Huskers have nearly as many this year, too, yet begin the season ranked No. 2 nationally and are picked to win the Big Ten Conference.

Never mind that Nebraska loses four starters, including its quarterback, three-year starting setter Kelly Hunter.

Expectations remain high.

“Playing at Nebraska, you always feel that pressure,” senior Kenzie Maloney said. “It makes it more competitive, and it makes it fun for us. No matter if we won last year or didn’t win last year, people are always going to give us their best shot, which is what we like, and what we like to compete against.”

Foecke and Maloney are the only four-year seniors on the roster, and a time existed when Cook, frankly, didn’t believe they’d be good leaders.

“Even last year,” Cook said, “I was worried about the leadership this year.”

Not anymore.

Like so many players before them, Foecke and Maloney underwent a major transformation and took ownership. Cook has seen this happen before, most recently with Hunter.

“It’s an evolution of what this program does to players and how it brings out the leadership in them,” Cook said. “It’s not something that we’re doing (as coaches), because I think leadership is really, really difficult to teach.

“This program shapes leaders and develops leaders. It’s not something I’m doing or my staff is doing. It’s about this program, how big it is in this state, what it means. They take those responsibilities and accept them and run with them.”

Combine that with a freshman class Cook has been excited about “for a very long time,” and you have a coach eager to see another group grow into what he hopes and believes will be a successful team.

Then again, Cook has no idea how any of his eight newcomers will respond when the bright lights shine.

“I think the way we’ve been training, I’m really pleased,” Cook said. “We’ve been going really hard. They’ve been competing at a really high level, so I expect us to compete really hard this weekend.”

Said Foecke: “I think all the freshmen are ready. If they have the opportunity, they’re going to do great. They’ve been practicing and working their butts off. As long as they go in and trust their training, they have an opportunity to do great things this year.”

One freshman assuredly with such an opportunity will be Nicklin Hames, the No. 4 overall recruit in the nation, and the top setter recruit, according to PrepVolleyball.com. Cook wouldn’t officially declare Hames the starting setter to replace Hunter but hinted she’s been taking the majority of the practice repetitions.

“Nicklin has done everything we’ve asked her to do,” Cook said. “We’ve had her change some techniques, we’ve had her change some things she does, and she’s been all over it. Nicklin is a really, really quick learner.”

She’s also one of the team’s hardest workers, teammates said.

“She definitely leads her pack and makes sure they get where they’re going,” Foecke said. “I think that’s great. You need that from a setter. She definitely is a quick learner, and that’s one of the biggest things with her this summer, is learning the Nebraska tempo and our offense, especially if she wants to be a starter this fall. She needs to be able to learn quick and adjust.”

The VERT Challenge, in its final season, has presented Nebraska with stiff competition to begin recent nonconference schedules, although on the other hand, “this tournament really doesn’t tell us anything,” Cook said.

Nebraska actually played pretty well in last year’s losses to Oregon (four games) and Florida (five games), he said.

“If it wasn’t for Carli Snyder ripping off four jump serves we couldn’t pass,” Cook said, “we could’ve won that match (against Florida).”

Snyder is gone, and so is the brunt of the power from that Florida team, although the Gators, the Huskers’ opponent Friday night at 6, still begin the season ranked No. 7.

Oregon, the Huskers’ opponent Saturday at 6 p.m., begins the season No. 18.

Never mind the weekend results, Cook said.

Are players doing what they’ve been trained? Are they trusting each other?

“That’s what I’m looking for this weekend,” Cook said. “I want to see us trust our training and play like we’ve been training, because I know if we stay with it, we’ll be a really good team. That’s going to be the key.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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