By Lincoln Arneal
For many Nebraska volleyball fans, work productivity is going to drop precipitously.
The second-seeded Huskers are scheduled to play No. 3 Oregon Thursday at 11 a.m. local time in Louisville. That means the match will start at 10 a.m. in Lincoln and at 8 a.m. for Duck fans.
During his weekly radio show, NU volleyball coach John Cook voiced frustration about the start time saying basketball wouldn’t start its Sweet 16 games before noon, and football wouldn’t play the College Football Playoffs in the morning.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Cook said. “It makes it hard on our fans, people that work. I don’t know why they can’t figure this out and do half on one day and half on another day.”
The reason for the early start time is television. All eight regional semifinals will be televised, with six matches on ESPNU and two during the afternoon on ESPN2. (ESPN2’s evening programming will feature Rutgers-Ohio State and Colorado-Colorado State men’s basketball).
The Huskers have proven to be a good television draw. Their match on Nov. 25 against Wisconsin drew 587,000 viewers, a regular-season record. More than 289,000 people tuned in the next day to watch the regular season finale against Minnesota. Also, last year’s national championship had 1.188 million viewers.
Cook was skeptical that a brunch time match would result in big numbers. Instead, he said he preferred splitting the days up and playing on Thursday and Friday with matches starting in the afternoon.
“This isn’t helping boost TV ratings,” Cook said. “I guess they are going to get everything on for the whole day. It’s a challenge, but that’s how the NCAA tournament rolls.”
The Huskers were also given an 11 a.m. start time in 2016 in a regional semifinal against Penn State. NU dropped the first two sets and faced two match points in the third at 24-22 but rallied with a 4-0 run and eventually won the match in five sets.
This season, Nebraska has played a variety of start times. Its first match of the year began at 11 a.m. against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as part of a doubleheader that day. The Huskers have played two matches at noon on Sundays and a pair of matches at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Nebraska switched its practice schedule from the afternoon to start at 10 a.m. this week in prep for the early first serve. The Huskers haven’t been sharp in some of their earlier start times this season, and Cook was sure they would come out strong in their most important match of the year.
“We aren’t going to have a sleepy set one,” Cook said. “Our team understands what is at stake here. We’ve played some weird times this year. We are used to being out of rhythm and out of sync. Our team is fired up, and we know we’re going to have to play our best match of the year.”
ALL-REGION – Nebraska placed five student-athletes on the AVCA North All-Region Team on Tuesday, the most all-region selections for the Huskers since earning six in 2016.
Senior outside hitter Madi Kubik earned her fourth selection, while middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord was named to the all-region team for her fifth time. Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez picked up her second honor, while sophomore opposite Whitney Lauenstein and freshman middle blocker Bekka Allick were recognized for the first time.
Being named to the all-region team makes the players eligible to earn All-American honors, which will be announced next week during the Final Four.
DUCK ATTACK — While Oregon’s outside hitters – freshman Mimi Colyer and senior Brooke Nuneviller – draw most of the attention, Cook said the best player on the Ducks’ offense is setter Hannah Pukis.
After transferring from Washington State, Pukis averaged more than 11 assists per set and led Oregon’s offense to a .298 hitting percentage – fourth in the nation. The left-handed junior also chips in more than one kill per set.
“Their setter is elite,” Cook said. “They run a really fast offense and she’s the one that makes it go. She puts those guys in a good position every time.”
Colyer, a 6-foot-3 freshman, averages 4.19 kills per set, while the 5-11 Nuneviller, who started at libero her freshman year, was just behind her at 4.05 kills per set.
Cook said the key to having the Huskers and their top-ranked defense slow down Oregon is learning their hitters’ tendencies and not letting them tip or use off-speed shots for kills.
TRANSFER TIME – With many teams’ seasons winding down, the transfer portal is starting to heat up for college volleyball. Cook talked about the culture around player movement and how many student-athletes are exploring their options.
Most of the top teams in the sport utilize transfers. Texas added six transfers to its roster and spent most of the season at No. 1. Wisconsin added key players at outside hitter and middle blocker to replace a large departing senior class. Louisville added a transfer at setter after losing a three-year starter.
“The whole world changed really fast,” Cook said. “When we first heard about the portal, we were like, this is not good. I don’t think everybody realized how dramatic it would be.”
Add in the extra year of eligibility granted because of the COVID pandemic and programs are in a scholarship numbers pinch. They often do not have room for players to stick around as they continue recruiting from the prep ranks.
Cook cited Northwestern as an example: all-Big Ten outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, outside hitter Hanna Lesiak and middle blocker Desiree Becker entered the portal after playing at least four years for the Wildcats. Cook said Ohio State might face that situation with six incoming freshmen who rank as the No. 5 class in 2023 by PrepVolleyball.com.
Cook prefers not to rely on transfers. However, the Huskers are not immune from taking transfers.
NU added middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord this offseason and some of the top players in the past decade started their careers elsewhere, including Kelsy Robinson, Briana Holman and Lexi Sun. Cook said the scholarship for Hord was made available by two medical retirements by opposite/middle blocker Riley Zuhn and middle blocker Rylee Gray.
Cook said incoming prep players are more ready than ever to contribute, with many entering a semester early and expecting to play.
“We are going to try to have the reputation that if we recruit you, we are going to play you,” Cook said. “If we need to go into the portal, it will be for a specific need, or we lost somebody, or we moved somebody to a different position.”