By Lincoln Arneal
Nebraska had to wait a little longer to learn its place in the NCAA volleyball tournament, but it was worth it in the end.
The Huskers were the last ones announced in the 64-team field as they earned the No. 2 seed in the Louisville region. NU will play MEAC champion Delaware State on Thursday. No. 7 seed Miami will play Kansas in the other first-round match with the winners meeting on Friday.
NU players used the extra time as they exchanged gifts during commercials as part of their Secret Santa party.
“We’re looking forward to playing all the teams that are on our side,” sophomore Lexi Rodrigeuz said. “We don’t like to wait, but nothing we can do.”
If seedings hold, the Huskers would face No. 3 Oregon in the regional semifinal and then former Nebraska player and assistant coach Dani Busboom Kelly and her 26-2 Cardinals.
Nebraska will start its prep for Delaware State, which no one knew anything about, but they quickly learned they are second in the nation in opponent’s hitting percentage at .132, which is three points behind the Huskers.
“I don’t know a thing about them. I don’t even know their nickname,” NU coach John Cook said. “But right now, that’s our focus. We’re glad to be playing.”
While the Huskers knew their name would be called eventually, the only other mystery would be when they would play. For the first time since 2012, NU will play its opening round match on Thursday.
The move might not benefit the Huskers immediately. They are trying to figure out new passing patterns after losing defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles for the season with a knee injury. Also, setter Nicklin Hames will have one less day to recover after missing Saturday’s match while feeling under the weather.
Senior Madi Kubik said the past week was draining emotionally and physically. However, they are ready to put it behind them and focus on the postseason.
“These next couple of days are going to be really big for our team to take time to recover and get reset,” she said. We look at these next couple of matches as kind of a fresh start.”
Even though Nebraska lost both its matches to close the regular season, Idaho State University Director of Athletics Pauline Thiros, the selection committee chair, said the Huskers’ body of work kept it above Minnesota, who swept NU on Saturday.
Thiros said Nebraska separated itself against common opponents as the Huskers went 17-4, while the Gophers went 14-7. She added that Minnesota had three losses outside the Top 25, while Nebraska had none. She also credited Nebraska for two top-10 wins against Ohio State and Kentucky.
“Our obligation is to look at the entire body of work, which made this a really, really robust discussion,” she said. “Minnesota is hot and ultimately they both are two (seeds) in the bracket, so they are both in a great position.”
Elsewhere, Texas earned the top overall seed. Ohio State and Minnesota got placed in the Austin region. Wisconsin was the third-overall seed and could have to go through Penn State and Pitt to make the Final Four.
Stanford earned the final No. 1 seed, getting the nod over 27-1 San Diego, the No. 2 seed in the region. Creighton was seeded fourth in the Cardinal’s region and will host Auburn in the first round.
The Southeastern Conference placed seven teams in the tournament, with Kentucky and Florida leading the way as No. 3 seeds. The Big Ten and Pac-12 each had six teams qualify, while five teams from the ACC and Big 12 are in the field.
Five of the Huskers’ nonconference opponents qualified. In addition to Stanford, Creighton and Kentucky, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine each earned at-large bids. Cook said they tried to schedule tough but also allow the team to develop at a natural progression.
“There’s always an art to scheduling so that’s why those are really important matches,” he said. “I’ve been talking about how this team shows up every night and they get after it and play. They don’t take anybody lightly, and they know they’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”