By Lincoln Arneal
CHICAGO — Just as Michigan was about to take its turn at the main table at Big Ten volleyball media days, a large portion of the media contingent checked their phones and headed out of the main interview room.
Nebraska coach John Cook and junior captains Merritt Beason and Lexi Rodriguez had a break in their schedule and were available for additional interviews.
Guess where the media horde was headed?
It was a welcome-to-the-Big Ten moment for first-year Wolverines coach Erin Virtue, where Nebraska’s presence looms large over everything volleyball in the league.
Nebraska had by far the largest media following of any of the 14 teams, some of which didn’t have a local reporter. Meanwhile, the Huskers had six writers and two television reporters at Big Ten Network headquarters for the second annual volleyball-centered event.
“I can tell you the Big Ten loves to have Nebraska here because they know they’re gonna get a great turnout from the media,” Cook said. “It’s a big deal.”
While Nebraska gets extensive coverage, its impact is felt in other areas too. Players and coaches were excited about the Huskers’ attempt to enter record books with their match at a sold-out Memorial Stadium later this month.
Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said he hadn’t been part of any discussion to host a match at the 80,321-seat Camp Randall. The Badgers currently hold the regular season attendance record after drawing 16,833 last September at the Kohl Center.
“I’m really excited for not just Nebraska and Omaha and everybody in that stadium, I’m excited about our sport,” Sheffield said. “I’m excited about women’s sports. I’m excited about sports in general. That’s a number that it shouldn’t just be people that are excited about women’s sports. That’s a big deal no matter where you’re at.”
Lineup Decisions Loom
The Huskers’ fall officially starts next week when they kick off practice on Tuesday.
Cook said it’s hard to compare to past years when the team was developmental because this team has been together since January. Now, they aren’t in a hurry to do as much skill development. The need isn’t as high to learn expectations in the gym. As a result, NU will have fewer two-a-day practices in the three weeks before the first match.
Instead, with the influx of talent, Cook and the assistant coaches will focus on some difficult lineup decisions. Even though he’s been impressed with how all the newcomers have looked so far, that might change when the stakes get raised.
“They’re gonna feel the pressure of having to prove themselves,” he said. “I can tell you this – everybody can play. There’s not one person I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, we need to redshirt that player, or they’re not going to help.’ Everybody can play.”
The five freshmen should all contribute, led by setter Bergen Reilly and outside hitter Harper Murray. Andi Jackson is also in the mix at middle blocker, and Caroline Jurevicius could push for time at opposite behind Beason. Laney Choboy might have the most straightforward role. She likely will back up Rodriguez at libero and serve as NU’s top defensive specialist.
The freshmen came in as the No. 1 recruiting class, which carries additional pressure. However, that’s not new for the Huskers, whose junior class was also rated as the best in the nation, including the top three overall prospects.
Rodriguez, the No. 10 overall recruit in the 2021 class, said she’s talked to the incoming freshmen about how to deal with the pressure and expectations. She said she took the approach that what happened in high school doesn’t matter anymore.
“It’s a fresh start. You have to prove yourself again as a team, as a player, and just knowing that every single game you’ve got to prove that you belong and that you can compete at this level,” she said. “I just remind them that they deserve to be here, and they weren’t the No. 1 recruiting class for no reason. They deserve it. They’ve just got to go out there and show it.”
Cook used to take the approach of figuring out the lineup during the first part of the season, but with the emphasis on the RPI for postseason seedings and the desire to host regionals, he won’t have the luxury of tinkering with lineups.
“You got to come out and hit the ground running,” Cook said. “Plus, I think we have a pretty challenging nonconference schedule. We’re gonna have to be ready for that. It’s not like you’re just gonna roll out different lineups all the time. I’d like us to get into some type of a lineup that we’re playing more consistently.”
Beason and Rodriguez are in the best position to earn regular playing time. Then Cook must decide on the right combination from the four outside hitters, three middle blockers and two setters.
Cook said the outside hitter battle will include several factors. It will depend on who can pass and play six rotations, who can kill balls and who can serve and terminate from the back row.
The challenge with multiple position battles is keeping everyone focused on the overall goal, even if they don’t get the starting nod. Beason said they’ve talked about understanding the lineup moves are designed to put the team in position to succeed, and starting and bench roles aren’t permanent.
“You have to understand that whatever puts the team in the best position to win is what coach is going to go with and it has nothing to do with you as a person and it could change from game to game,” she said. “This team has a really good grasp of that and they understand that. It doesn’t matter who it is, but if that’s our best position to win, then that’s OK.”