Randy York's N-Sider
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Volleyball is an interesting and sometimes fascinating sport, and in Nebraska, it has what Big Red football has - unmatched loyalty. Unless you know another NCAA school that's sold out its last 149 consecutive volleyball matches, don't even try to debate that point.
The hottest ticket in Nebraska volleyball history will be Wednesday, Sept. 21, when four-time defending national champion Penn State visits Lincoln for the Huskers' first-ever Big Ten Conference match at the NU Coliseum.
John Cook/Nebraska history vs. Russ Rose/Nittany Lion folklore will be a compelling backdrop for a monumental game in an unbelievable atmosphere. Nebraska season ticketholders parting with those tickets would be the volleyball equivalent of Big Red football fans passing on Notre Dame.
We bring all this up for one reason. Saturday night, when Nebraska hosts Tianjin Bridgestone - the reigning professional championship team in all of China - the Huskers will be playing a team that's better than Penn State, and because this match was a late addition to the spring schedule, we have a real rarity - tickets available
in relative abundance.
Somehow, it seems odd that one of the best teams that will ever play in the Coliseum might not see the place as it almost always is - amped up, tuned in and sold out. We have to ask Nebraska Volleyball Coach John Cook
Wednesday if Tianjin Bridgestone would be favored to win the NCAA next fall if they were somehow eligible. "Absolutely, no question about it," he said. "They're in a whole different league."
A second later, Cook put it another way. "It would be like bringing the Dallas Cowboys into the Big Ten for a year," he said. "Who do you think would be favored to win if that happened?"
Standing outside - between Memorial Stadium and his Coliseum office - Cook then shook his head, trying to find a way to explain how volleyball is woven into the fabric of Chinese culture.
Bridgestone: Eight China Championships in Last Nine Years
For starters, he pointed out that Tianjin Bridgestone recently won its fifth straight Chinese League Championship and the team's eighth title in the last nine years.
Such dominance is important in a country that worships volleyball like Americans worship football. Think worldwide soccer, where the outcome becomes so overly magnified that crowds can get downright ugly.
Steve Wang, a friend of Cook's who teaches at Doane College, sent Nebraska's head coach this video
to demonstrate how fans "can get all into a tizzy" when a team like Tianjin Bridgestone wins a little more often than some of their competitors can handle. The video shows bitter fans reacting disgustedly to the outcome and spoiling what should have been another triumphant moment for China's elite championship team.
Yes, volleyball is big in China, so big that the team visiting Lincoln Saturday beat another team equally loaded with talent for the country's 2011 league championship.
"The team that Tianjin Bridgestone beat is owned by the richest man in China and the team name is the same as his real estate company," Cook said. "It was a team that had four Olympic players and two non-Chinese players on its roster. One was Logan Tom, the best player in America. The other was Jovana Brakocevic, another pro from Serbia. The team owner also hired the former US national coach (Jenny Lang Ping) as head coach, and it had China's best setter (Feng Kun) on the team."
No wonder parts of the packed house in that video wanted to start a revolt when they learned money can't buy you love or volleyball championships.
Cook Wants to Be Gracious Hosts for China's Top Team
The good news is when the Chinese champions visit Lincoln Saturday night Cook wants Nebraska's fans to be the most gracious hosts Tianjin Bridgestone has ever experienced.
Inside the Coliseum will be a big Chinese drum, just like the one Cook and his team saw in Tianjin last summer when the Huskers got smoked in Game 1 and Game 3. Somehow, Nebraska managed to win Game 2, 25-23.
According to Cook, Tianjin Bridgestone has 30 players on its roster, including five Olympians, but only two of the five are on this trip: 1) Li Shan, who played on China's 2004 Olympic gold medal team; and 2) Li Juan, who played on its 2008 Olympic bronze medal team. Wang Qian hasn't played in the Olympics, but she's a libero on China's current national team and among those suiting up in Lincoln.
Team manager Wang Baoquan is China's former national team coach. The team's head coach, Liu Xiaoming, won the "best coach" award in the China League in March. Fortunately, the Huskers won't see the league's most popular player, nor the best attacker, best blocker or best server because all were called up to participate in national team training.
Still, Cook said Husker fans will be impressed with the up-tempo style of this Chinese team. "They are machines and I mean, machines," he said. "You have to see them to understand how machine-like they are."
She Gets to the End, but Dad's the One Saying Checkmate
, the Huskers' junior defensive specialist from League City, Texas, a Houston suburb, compares the challenge of beating Tianjin Bridgestone to beating her dad, who works for NASA, in chess.
"Playing chess with my dad is one of my absolute favorite things to do, even though he demolishes me," she said. "We play a lot of chess games on our phones, and I've only beaten him one time in my entire life. Usually, I don't make the big mistake until the very end, and then he helps explain the reason why I lost."
Saturday's challenge against Tianjin is similarly daunting because the Chinese champions play so fast and control the ball so well with their speed and ball handling skills that one opposing coach describes their style as "a synchronized dance if you will."
"Can they mess up and give you a chance to win?" we ask Pendergast.
"That's just it. They're not going to mess up," she said. "To beat them, you have to make plays, put the ball away and finish every single opportunity. They really are just like machines. They're good, they're fast ... they're really fast. Volleyball is what they do. A lot of them play on the Chinese national team. You know going in that you have to play almost perfect to beat them.
"Nothing's impossible," Pendergast said, "but we really have to be on our A-game to have a chance. Our serve and pass game has to be flawless like theirs. We have to make every play and not make errors at the same time. It's going to be really tough, but we're scrappy and we want to win. We love winning for our fans, and we love winning for each other. We have to be like them - go out there and do what we do!"
Great Team, Great Match, Great Seats: Ideal Opportunity
If you've ever wanted to watch a match in the Coliseum, now appears to be your golden opportunity. Kristi Reetz, Nebraska's assistant ticket manager, said Thursday that even though lower Coliseum seats are sold out, there are "all kinds of seats" above the second-row balcony available to Husker fans.
We should point out that Big Ten power Illinois stunned jet-lagged Tianjin in five sets
Cook knows what happened. "First, Tianjin Bridgestone played its youngest players," he said. "Second, they arrived late in Chicago, had non-stop tornado warnings and basically played without much rest after they landed.
To give you an idea of how serious they take volleyball in China, when they lost, they had a grueling half-hour practice session right after the game. They were hitting balls as hard as they could from just a few feet away. It was brutal."
Cook has no delusions about Nebraska catching the Chinese champions at the right time, even though the famous program will play at Kansas State Thursday night and at Creighton Friday night before moving on to the West Coast after playing at Nebraska.
"They will be well rested and at the top of their game when they play here," Cook said. "This is a team does not make errors."
Pendergast Knows Someone in Pursuit of Excellence
Pursuit of perfection is part of Tianjin Bridgestone's culture, and, in many ways, it's similar to John Cook's own pursuit of excellence at Nebraska.
"Have you ever seen an interview with Jack Nicklaus?" asks Pendergast, who also loves to play golf. "He remembers every single shot of every single round he's ever played. He can tell you exactly what he was thinking about every shot. Well, Coach Cook is kind of like that. He'll say something like: 'Hey Megan, why did you try to do this in the middle of Game 2 when it was 6-all?' And I'm like: 'Coach, I have no idea why I did it.' What I really want to say when I get those questions is: 'Coach, I'm sorry. I don't have a photographic volleyball memory like you do.'"
As the official host of an internationally famous team, Cook has outlined every detail from the minute Tianjin Bridgestone arrives Thursday night until it departs Monday morning from Omaha's Eppley Airfield.
Saturday, Nebraska will host the Chinese delegation for a luncheon at the Training Table, followed by a tour of the Student Life Complex and other Husker athletic facilities. Once the two teams finish their match, they will sign autographs and receive mementos from Lincoln's Chinese community.
Sunday will be a well deserved free day with host families and include breakfast, lunch, shopping and anything else that might help the world's toughest program relax, even if it's just for a little bit.
Since this is an exhibition game, it will not affect Nebraska's consecutive sellout streak, which will reach milestone No. 150 when the Huskers host Creighton in their 2011 season-opener on Thursday, Sept. 8, in the Coliseum.
Don't Ask 'How Are You?' Until the Match is Over
That intra-state match between returning NCAA qualifiers will be a nice launch into an historic Nebraska ride into its new conference. But if you want to see and experience something really special, buy and print your tickets here
and check out one of the world's most famous volleyball teams. You can also call 1-800-8BIGRED
to reserve seats.
And when you get to the Coliseum, make sure you say "Ni Hao" (pronounced "knee how").
When you say it, start at a low tone, move it up, dip down and then bring back up again. The idea is to make it sound almost musical.
And exactly what does Ni Hao
It means "Hello!"
Put the question word "ma" at the end of Ni Hao
, and you're asking: "How are you?"
Given what's already happened to Tianjin Bridgestone so far on this American tour, guess we'll wait until the end of the match before we'll know that answer.
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