By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
No, really. It’s true.
That means Hunter, the Huskers’ junior setter, is having fun, hanging loose, not a care in the world.
“Kelly, that’s how she rolls,” said Cook, the veteran Nebraska head coach. “When she gets really quiet – which is how she was going down the Big Ten stretch – that’s when I start worrying.
“Kelly, that’s a key for her. When she’s loose and fun, that’s when she plays her best.”
That, in turn, is a microcosm for Cook’s team.
So Nebraska fans will smile when they see the following five words from Cook as his No. 1 Huskers face Texas in the NCAA Final Four on Thursday night at Nationwide Arena:
“We don’t feel the pressure.”
Nebraska (31-2) is making its 13th all-time appearance in the NCAA semifinals and fifth back-to-back trips and is trying to become the first team in program history to win back-to-back national championships.
Last season, the Huskers swept Texas in the national championship match in Omaha. Cook said his team felt so much pressure just to get to the Final Four, given its proximity, that it was much looser once it got there, and played really well.
“This year, I think getting there, it would’ve been a bust season if we didn’t get there, and so we accomplished that, and I think the same thing now is we know we have something out there and we’re going to go for it, and we’re going to play really free and loose,” Cook said.
“That’s what it feels like to me. We’re going after something now. We’re not being hunted like we were all through the Big Ten. We’re going after a national championship.”
Cook said it was “an awful feeling” trying to protect a lead in the Big Ten down the stretch of Nebraska’s run to the conference title. It’s why Hunter was uncharacteristically quiet during that time.
“I think she was feeling pressure,” Cook said. “We all felt it. We all felt it. Before the Penn State match last Friday, Dani (Busboom Kelly), my assistant, who never gets nervous, told me she thought she was going to throw up. I couldn’t sleep for two nights.
“It was a high-pressure match. A lot on the line. A lot for us to lose, and nothing for Penn State to lose, and we knew that. We knew the level they were capable of playing.”
After Nebraska rallied to win in five sets, the Huskers played loose and free in an easy sweep of Washington in the regional championship. Hunter, by Cook’s count, had only one error against the Huskers, after averaging about six or seven -- per game -- against Penn State.
“She played almost flawless,” Cook said. “If we were grading centers like we’re grading quarterbacks, she’d have graded out very, very high. Once the pressure got off from Penn State, she played free, and that’s how she played last year in the Final Four.”
And, as a team, it’s the attitude Nebraska is carrying into this Final Four.
The Huskers, who swept Texas (26-4) back in August, would face either Minnesota or Stanford in Saturday’s national championship match, should they defeat the Longhorns again.
“Texas is pretty similar every year. It’s just what athletes they have out there,” Cook said. “We know we had success against them but they’re going to prepare for that. I just think it’s whatever team can go in there and play their volleyball.”
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said he played tough competition at the beginning of the season so he could learn more about his team and discover its strengths and weaknesses.
It wasn’t smooth, Elliott admits, but he knew his team had the pieces.
“We knew we had the senior leadership and the buy-in to be able to get back into this point. It wasn’t the easiest of years for us, but it’s great that we finally started hitting our stride in the last five weeks and playing at a much higher level,” Elliott said.
“It’s a tribute to this team and the work ethic and the commitment to it. And it’s a long season for most programs. And the ones that stay committed to the process and believe in the culture and the systems are the ones that usually get back here.”
Cook and Nebraska know that better than anyone.
He said his Huskers have played some really high-level volleyball this year, “and going through the Big Ten Conference, the conference is definitely tougher this year than it was last year. We had to raise our level to compete and win that conference. We had to raise our level against Penn State and Washington as well.
“This group has raised its level from last year.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.