Randy York's N-sider
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Magic can be an indescribable word, especially when applied to athletics.
Yet Kori Cooper and Kayla Banwarth each mentioned magic in a press conference this week as Nebraska's volleyball team waits for the snow to melt and the sun to shine on Qwest Center Omaha.
Surely you know the Qwest, the place the Huskers love almost as much as their own Coliseum, their home away from home, their land of enchantment three years ago when they beat UCLA and Stanford en route to Nebraska's third national volleyball championship.
Another storybook finish almost followed that magical season last December when Nebraska rode the Qwest's extraordinary atmosphere to a near monumental upset of unbeaten Penn State in the Championship semifinals.
This weekend, the stakes are similar. Friday night, the Huskers need to dispatch Iowa State so they can get a likely third shot Saturday night against heavy regional favorite Texas, which has beaten Nebraska in six of their seven sets this season.
If that sounds like dreaming the undreamable dream or fighting the unbeatable foe, you don't understand what kind of mystical powers Nebraska sees in the Qwest.
"The Qwest Center is definitely magical for us," said Banwarth, Nebraska's junior libero. "We're excited to play there. We may not be the highest seed, but it's the Qwest, and anything can happen there."
Kori Cooper, Nebraska's senior middle blocker and the only player who was part of both the 2006 and 2008 postseason Husker experiences in Omaha, feels the same karma.
A Home-Court Advantage Away From Home
"I mean, it's in Omaha. It feels like home for Husker fans," Cooper said. "I feel like maybe there's a little magic at the Qwest Center. It always kind of feels that way. The home-court advantage is what really draws me there. We're really excited for these great teams to come in and challenge us there."
This weekend will be the closest thing to a Big 12 Tournament Nebraska volleyball may ever see. Ironically, it's a chance to make up for some lost ground at the Qwest last August when the Huskers dropped three straight to Michigan and eked out a five-set match against Minnesota.
"We're a completely different team now," Cooper said. "We've gone on a really long journey. I think the Husker Nation is going to see a completely different dynamic than they saw in August."
There's little reason to dwell on the ruts in the road to Omaha. The only thing that really matters is Cook came up with one of his better motivational campaigns after Nebraska's loss at Texas on Oct. 30th.
After that, Cook was determined to wipe the slate clean, and he vowed to coach his young team to a "November to Remember". And was it ever! The Huskers went 7-0 in the month, including sweeps over Iowa State, Texas A&M and Baylor, all of which are in the NCAA Sweet 16.
It was the first time Nebraska had swept through an entire month of November. Counting last weekend's NCAA first- and second-round sweeps against Coastal Carolina and Northern Iowa in Lincoln, the Huskers now have won 27 straight sets in nine consecutive matches as they prepare for the fifth-ranked Cyclones and a likely fourth-round match against the Longhorns.
So what's happened? How did Nebraska transform itself from a team that was upended by Texas A&M in College Station and was beaten for the first time ever by Iowa State in Lincoln?
Players Set the Stage for Banwarth's Symbolic Blackshirt
You can look at the turnaround from all different kinds of angles, but Husker players believe there was some magic in a new Blackshirt that Banwarth found in her locker.
We're not kidding here. A meaningful emotional surge was launched Nov. 21st when Banwarth pulled a Blackshirt over her head for the first time and took the floor in Lawrence, Kan.
The players had been talking about their libero wearing a Blackshirt for weeks. Finally, backup setter Jessica Yanz asked Tom Osborne if it was okay to wear a Blackshirt, and after Nebraska's athletic director gave Yanz the green light, Husker players and coaches built an emotional fire around one symbolic black jersey.
"Coach Cook said it probably wouldn't happen until next year, then, all of a sudden, I found the black jersey in my locker at KU," Banwarth said. "Everybody was going crazy. It really pumped the whole team up. We all saw it as a big honor."
As every Nebraska fan knows, a Blackshirt is all about defense. It denotes ''having a certain presence, and we all understand what it means to wear a Blackshirt at this university," Banwarth said. "Defense wins games, and we decided to put an even greater emphasis on defense as we pulled ourselves together down the stretch."
Nebraska volleyball players are no different than Husker fans everywhere. They love watching football, and they've enjoyed watching the Blackshirts put on a clinic this fall, holding Oklahoma to three points and coming up one second and one point short of beating Texas for the Big 12 Championship.
Defense Requires an Attitude, Even a Swagger
"Defense is really just an attitude," Banwarth said. "It's telling yourself that nothing's going to get by you, and nothing's going down on the floor. You have to take it personally against the other team. It's like telling them: 'You're not going to get a ball by me. Just try it! I dare you!!' It's an attitude and a swagger you have to have out there."
Banwarth now has that swagger, even though she lost it earlier in the season.
Last summer, you may recall, Cook called Banwarth the best libero in the country. "When he said that, it shocked me. I thought he was talking about the wrong person," Banwarth said. "I thought there's no way, no way that I'm the best or even one of the best."
Sometimes, though, great coaches use shock to inspire and allow for time to acquire. "It let me know what I was capable of and what he expected of me," Banwarth said. "When Coach Cook says something like that, you know he truly means it. So I started to believe that I was the best libero in the country, but I took it a bit too far. I tried way too hard to be the best. I was trying to do things I wasn't capable of doing."
She wasn't the only one. Seemingly every player on the team was making the same mistake. "Everybody thought they needed to win the match by themselves, and obviously that approach was not working," Banwarth said. "When we lost at Texas, we realized that we're not going to win unless we all come together and get this season turned around together."
Cook told his troops they'd already learned how to deal with adversity. Now it was time to learn how to handle prosperity.
"We came together because nobody in the country thought we could do it," Banwarth said. "But with (All-Americans) Kori and Sydney (Anderson) and Tara (Mueller) lighting the fire and leading the way, we became a different team."
The Huskers became a tougher team, a more confident team, one that's ready, willing and able to beat Iowa State a second time and make a possible third Texas match a charm.
With more experience and a better attitude, the game is starting to slow down for this very young Husker team. "We're embracing the challenge of this longer journey," Banwarth said. "We all want to play defense with a Blackshirt mentality. We want to suffocate our opponents with great effort, relentless, never-give-up kind of effort."
The Huskers are also more aggressive and in an attack mode on offense.
A Blackshirt Mindset and a Magical Atmosphere
The timing couldn't be better to see if a Blackshirt mindset can be matched with the magic of a pro-Husker atmosphere inside Qwest Omaha.
"Just win, baby, that's what it's all about," said Cook, repeating a famous quote and remembering how he once thought that his team, and all volleyball teams, would get swallowed up in Omaha's 17,000-seat arena and convention center.
"But I was wrong," Cook said. "We didn't get lost in the Qwest."
For the Huskers, "there's just something about the Qwest," Cook said. "They treat us like royalty. They treat us like rock stars."
No wonder John Cook and his entire team believe in magic.