Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Asian Tour To Push Huskers Out of Comfort Zone

By Brian Rosenthal

The last time the Nebraska volleyball team played a summer exhibition tour in Asia, the Huskers emerged victorious 15-13 in the fifth game to defeat a team from Hangzhou. To put that into perspective, Nebraska had gone winless in trips to Asia in 2000 and 2006 – years it won a national championship – and had won only one match during a 2010 visit.

That victory over Hangzhou marked one of only two during Nebraska’s 2014 tour, and what happened afterward is why John Cook prefers these visits to Asia over any other country.

“We somehow lucked out in front of about 3,000 people, on TV,” said Cook, the veteran Nebraska head coach. “We got our stuff and started leaving."

Meanwhile, the Hangzhou team stayed around and started practicing.

"It was not a good situation for them," Cook said.

In other words, volleyball is a serious deal there, and professional teams losing to a collegiate team from the United States isn’t acceptable.

“Those Asian teams want to win,” Cook said, “and they don’t want to lose to us, and they’re in full-time training mode all year round.”

That’s why Cook is again taking his Nebraska volleyball team on a 17-day summer tour of Asia. The team leaves Saturday and arrives Sunday in Japan, where it will spend seven days, and then head to China for 10 days.

In all, the Huskers are scheduled to play seven matches against top professional teams, beginning with Hisamitsu Springs and Toray, the top two ranked teams in the pro league in Japan.

“Their heads are going to be spinning from jet lag. It takes a while to adjust to that,” Cook said of his team, pointing out another reason he likes the Asian tour.

“We tend to approach this as we want these guys to go through an experience that is going to stress them, get them uncomfortable. They’re going to have to learn to grind a bit and be away from home and be way out of their comfort zone for 17 days.”

After sightseeing in Osaka on their last day in Japan, the Huskers will arrive June 22 in Shanghai, China, where they will tour the city and train for two days before facing Shanghai Bright Ubest, of the Chinese Volleyball League, in matches on June 24 and 25.

The team will then take an overnight train that arrives in Tianjin on June 26 and will tour and train with Chinese league runner-up Tianjin Bohai Bank on June 27 before playing a match against the pro team on June 28. The Huskers will play their last match of the trip on June 29 against reigning Chinese league champion Beijing Baic Motor in Beijing. 

“We’re going to challenge our team,” Cook said. “Our record will not be great. But we are going to learn how to play some great volleyball and play against some teams that play great volleyball.”

The NCAA allows such foreign tours every four years, but a new rule this year allows teams to take incoming freshmen. Nebraska has six, which is why Cook waited a fifth year before returning to Asia.

“This is a great opportunity, timing-wise, for our program and our roster, to go this year,” said Cook, whose team has no seniors. “I love the idea that we’ve got this group for two years and can kind of see them and watch them grow and build those relationships.”

Cook said this might be the youngest team he’s ever coached at Nebraska.

“I’m really, really impressed with our freshman class,” Cook said. “They were ranked second, and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what are these people thinking?’ And now that they’re here, I’m seeing some really good things from these freshmen.”

Among them are outside hitter Madi Kubik and libero Kenzie Knuckles, who arrived on campus earlier this summer.

“They came in here and did not flinch. They did not act like freshmen,” Cook said. “They remind me of what Mikaela had. They have this deep inner confidence. Mikaela had that as a freshman. Kenzie Maloney had that as a freshman. These guys have it. That’s why we recruited them.”

Cook has not named them captains but has appointed leadership duties to junior middle Lauren Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames.

“This is going to be their opportunity to prove they can lead this team,” he said.

Hames said she learned leadership traits last year from Mikaela Foecke and Maloney, and that they prepared her and Stivrins to assume leadership roles.

As for the Asian tour, Hames said the team has to approach it with the mindset that anything can happen.

“We’ve trained hard and we’ve been preparing for it,” Hames said. “We know we’re playing the top teams, but I don’t think we’re nervous or scared about it. We’re just going in ready to fight.”

Stivrins said she’s ready to do her part to lead the team, and that this team is hungry enough that it doesn’t need much guidance -- so focused they are after falling short in last year’s NCAA Tournament national championship match to Stanford.

She then pointed to a picture that hangs in the team’s lounge, next to the locker room. It shows Stanford players celebrating victory while Nebraska players remained huddled tight.

“We’re going to take that and learn from it and be that much better,” Stivrins said. “As much as I’d love to forget that (match), I think it’s totally driven this team. We’re competing harder than we ever have. Everyone’s attitudes have completely shifted because we know we have to work that much harder to be that much better, because no one wants to feel that again.”

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

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