Randy York’s N-Sider
So No. 7 Nebraska’s opening appetizer for a promising volleyball season came up short Friday night in the season opener against No. 13 Florida State before 8,569 fans, the largest crowd under the current Devaney Center configuration. Winning the first set, 25-18, before losing the next three, 27-25, 25-23, and 25-23 was a tough result, but the Huskers, who have only one senior on the roster, have little time to despair. Sunday at noon, No. 3-ranked Stanford, a perennial national championship contender, comes to the Devaney Center for a matinee match. Welcome to the next early season lesson between two powerhouse programs inside the best volleyball venue in America, if not the world.
Despite a match-high 18 kills from junior Alicia Ostrander, Friday night was disappointing for the Huskers, but not disillusioning. Big games draw big volleyball crowds, and that’s a big deal, especially when your season follows the same basic timeline as football. Sometimes, though, it makes me wonder why Nebraska Coach John Cook, who has one of the most impeccable win-loss records in the history of collegiate volleyball, wants Nebraska to play such a steady diet of marquee matches.
Cook: You Can’t Beat ‘Em if You Don’t Play ‘Em
The answer is not complicated. First, Cook’s personality matches the challenge. He likes to pick up the baton and help orchestrate his sport at the highest level. For him, it’s like a magnet, but loaded with logic. “You can’t beat ‘em if you don’t play ‘em,” he told me before adding what more volleyball programs should take to heart: “Our fans want to see us play great teams. It gets their adrenaline going.”
Classic Cook, weaving the fans into the rationale of why he relishes playing against the nation’s best every time the bell rings to start the season. “It’s not the best for our stress level,” he admitted. “But the truth is, our players learn a lot from playing good competition because those teams coming in here this weekend will teach us what we have to do to be great. Besides, TV loves the big matches.”
In Cook’s mind, question asked; question answered. He was ready to move on to his own laundry list of bases to cover before nationally prominent teams visit his daily residence. Fine with me. I wanted to ask Dani Busboom Kelly and Dan Meske, his two assistant coaches, the same question anyway.
Playing the Best: The Baseline for Improvement
“Playing the best teams in the country is the only way to get better,” said Busboom Kelly, a former Husker volleyball captain and one of only two players in program history to rank among NU’s all-time leaders in both digs (1,281 second) and assists (2,873, eighth). “It’s especially important to play the great teams early, so we can learn more about our team and figure out what we have to do to improve. If we opened the season playing no-names, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. Our team can feel the hype and the excitement. We like the atmosphere it creates throughout the state of Nebraska. That’s why you come here. You’re one of the best and want to be the best. You need the type of players you recruit to help recruit others to want the same thing. Playing the best teams in the country is a big part of our culture.”
Meske, in his eighth season at Nebraska and his fourth as a full-time assistant, listens to Busboom Kelly’s comments and says “she nailed it” before I can ask him the same question. “If you want to be the best, you really do have to beat the best,” he said. “Most of the kids we recruit grew up playing against the kids at Stanford or Penn State or any other major national qualifier. They’re used to the competition … that’s how we get better and how we want to prepare for every Big Ten season. We’re in a tough conference.”
The preseason ratings reflect the validity of that statement. Four of the top eight pre-season nationally ranked teams are in the Big Ten. Six Big Ten teams are among the top 12 and seven among the top 16. Since both assistants reinforced their head coach’s thoughts so easily, I asked another serious question: Is the Devaney Center itself an attraction that motivates other power teams to want to play here?
Devaney Second to No Other Volleyball Arena
“Yes, and I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Meske said. “It’s second to no volleyball arena in the world, and it’s probably one of our best recruiting tools in the world. When you see Stanford taking pictures at The Devaney, that’s impressive stuff. It’s a big deal having big-time teams coming in here and taking pictures of what we have. We take a lot of pride in that. It’s important for our sport to be on that level.”
Busboom Kelly also calls the Devaney Center the best volleyball facility in the world. “It’s awesome to see how much it impresses players, coaches and fans,” she said. “They complement us all the time on our atmosphere, our facility and what we do here. When you have fans like ours, the experience is important. I’m not going to say the West Coast schools don’t have great fans, but they have so many other things going on out there. I think it’s intriguing for them to see why volleyball is such a big deal in Nebraska.”
Kadie Rolfzen Shares Goals with Shawn Eichorst
Kadie Rolfzen, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Papillion, Neb., has no doubt why her head coach relishes playing the nation’s best teams. “It’s his way of making us prove ourselves right from the beginning…at least that’s what I think,” she told me on Thursday before matching her career-high of 18 digs in Friday night's loss to Florida State. “Coach Cook forces us to be ready at all times. If we start out easy, it won’t help you because you can never play easy in the Big Ten. He wants us to be ready every day and be challenged every day. It’s part of our culture.” A third-team AVCA All-American as a freshman, Rolfzen is fairly certain about Cook’s motives. “In a way, because we’re at Nebraska, I feel like all-out is always going to be case,” she said. “Even our Red-White Scrimmage was a big deal competitively. He wants everybody to be ready to play everybody all the time.” Last year, that focus forced Rolfzen and her twin sister, Amber, to steady their nerves from the first minute they stepped on a collegiate court. “We all try to rise to the highest challenge,” she said. “On our trip to China, we all talked about people who could surprise you. Everybody had their own thing that was surprising, and it helped us understand how we can all contribute on a regular basis.”
Rolfzen was on the move while she shared her thoughts with me. Interestingly, she was headed to a meeting with Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska’s Director of Athletics. “Coach Cook asks us to share our goals with other people, and I chose to share mine with Shawn,” she said. “We’re a team, but we all have personal goals, too, so we fill them out and share them. I think it’s not only good for me to share mine with Shawn, I think it’s good for him, too. It helps him understand that we do a lot of things outside our sport. What we do every day besides volleyball makes us better people.” Not to mention better prepared to play the nation’s best, and Rolfzen made it a clean sweep, saying you can’t beat the best unless you play the best – a unanimous opinion among the Huskers’ head coach, his assistants and every volleyball player who has Nebraska spelled out on the front of her jersey. Kadie is glad it’s there, even though she and her sister could have gone just about anywhere else in the country. Rolfzen has played against or knows most of Stanford’s team. Yet she chose Nebraska and we all know why – there’s no other place like it.
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