'Why Not Us?' Huskers Ready for NCAA Run
No burden, no expectations, no problems.
That’s Nebraska volleyball entering the NCAA Tournament for a 36th consecutive season.
To show you exactly how loose and carefree these Huskers are, what with nobody outside of Lincoln expecting much of them, consider that coach John Cook didn’t really give a hoot where his team landed in the seeding process.
(For the record, the Big Ten Conference champions somehow slipped to the No. 5 seed, meaning the Huskers must hit the road for regional competition.)
“I wasn’t glad, I wasn’t mad. It’s just the way it is,” said Cook, the Big Ten Coach of the Year. “I prepare myself for that. I used to get all worked up, and now, whatever they throw at us, we’re just happy to be in it.”
You could toss that onto the growing pile of team slogans and sayings for this 2017 bunch – ‘Why Not Us?’ is among the most popular – after their surprising run to a third Big Ten title since joining the league in 2011.
Now, can Nebraska (26-4) continue turning heads all the way to Kansas City? The sprint, as Cook calls it, begins Friday at 7 p.m., when the Huskers host America East Conference champion Stony Brook at the Devaney Sports Center.
“I don’t want to call it a chip on our shoulder, but why can’t we be a great team?” Cook said. “I think there is a motivation to prove that.”
Last year’s star-studded group began the year saddled with enormous expectations after winning the 2015 NCAA title. From the get go, there was no journey to enjoy, no growth to experience, no landmarks to achieve. The expectation was to win another national title, and oh, hurry up through that thing they call the Big Ten, please.
This season has been a complete opposite, a reason Cook said he’s ranking it among his top two best seasons in his Nebraska career, joining the 2008 team.
“I don’t care what happens in the next three weeks,” Cook said. “It’s one of the most rewarding, fulfilling seasons that I’ve had.”
He wasn’t certain that would be the case in August, when Cook initially worried about burnout. He had assistant coaches to replace, freshmen to train and a director of operations having a baby.
But in the blink of an eye, December has arrived.
“I cannot believe we are at the tournament,” Cook said. “It is just mind-boggling to me. The season has flown by.”
That’s because these Huskers enjoyed the climb, had fun with the journey, the overall adventure.
“We’re just excited to prove people wrong,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “It’s just kind of fun to shock people.”
Hunter, the Big Ten setter of the year, agreed with Cook that this season flew by, while last season drug.
“Every game, all of us came out and had fun and tried to play our best and play loose and play for each other,” Hunter said. “This season went by a lot faster. That’s because we’re living in the moment and we’re not focusing on a loss or a bad game or a big win. We’re just focusing on our next opponent.”
So is this Big Ten title, say, more rewarding than last season's?
“A little bit,” senior middle Briana Holman said, “just because they didn’t expect it out of us. This is a journey we started in the summer. It was more rewarding this year, because we really had to work for it and earn it rather than people saying, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re going to win.’ ”
Holman said Nebraska is taking that same approach through the NCAA Tournament.
“Oh yeah, we don’t even get to host (regionals), so I feel like there are people out there who still don’t believe we can be the best,” she said. “We know what we are capable of.”
Cook certainly does. All week long, he’s reminded his players that, statistically, this is the best Nebraska volleyball team of the last five years – highest hitting percentage, best serving team, fewest aces allowed.
In fact, the Huskers were a combined 320 points better than Big Ten opponents, the highest differential since they joined the league.
“There is no reason why they shouldn’t see themselves as competing and winning a national championship,” Cook said. “We certainly have played the level of volleyball throughout the year to warrant us to say that.
“Now, we’ve got to go get it. This team is going to be loose and play really aggressive and go for it.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.