It’s time for Nebraska volleyball’s annual test of rookie nerves

The Red-White scrimmage is anything but a laid-back affair for newcomers.

By Lincoln Arneal

NU volleyball coach John Cook likes to tell the story of the most nervous three-time All-American Jordan Larson ever was before a match during her Nebraska career. It wasn’t the two national championship matches she appeared in, 17 top-five matchups or showdowns with Stanford, Texas or Penn State. 

No, the most nervous Larson was before a match happened before her first Red-White scrimmage. And that was in front of only 4,000 fans at the old NU Coliseum. Almost twice that many fill the Devaney Center now, which can cause a little bit of a shock for Husker newcomers. However, this year, Cook’s goal is to use the scrimmage as a teaching opportunity so the freshmen can be mentally prepared to play their best. 

“I’m going to approach it differently than we have in the past, where I’m always kidding them about how nervous they are. How the freshmen are gonna pee on the floor, and we have to have extra towels out,” Cook said. “Now it’s going to be we’re going to mentally prepare how to go through, perform and not worry about everything else going on.”

The Huskers will welcome the fall season Saturday at 6 p.m. with their annual scrimmage streamed on BTN+. 

For freshman middle blocker Maggie Mendelson, the 7,000-plus fans will be the largest crowd she will play in front of in her life. 

“It’s gonna be awesome,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that many people in the same room.”

Fellow freshman Bekka Allick had the advantage of playing in the spring match against Kansas in front of 6,117 fans in Grand Island. She said that she hears the words of senior Kenzie Knuckles, who told her that because there is so much noise, it is easy to forget about everything and focus on your breath, your voice and your teammates. 

Allick said before big matches some people freak out during the match, and it takes them a while to settle in, but her moments of nerves happen before she gets to the court. 

“I crash and burn like seconds before walking out onto the floor,” she said. “As soon as the first serve goes (up), my mind goes completely blank. Like I can’t think at all. All I think is responsive.”

The 6-foot-3 Waverly graduate is looking forward to the match though, as she’s equally anxious and excited. She said the goal is to treat it like a high-stakes match and not take any reps lightly. 

“We had our first scrimmage this last weekend, and I got a taste of what it’s like to play against each other,” she said. “We were so competitive … because we’ve established that trust amongst each other, we can turn it on and talk a little bit of smack.”

For sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez, she is excited to be back in front of fans. While she was at Nebraska as an early enrollee for the spring 2021 season, she couldn’t compete, so when the Deveney Center was filled up a year ago, she soaked it in after watching matches in front of small crowds. 

“I just remember that I was extremely nervous, and it was the first time we were back in front of everyone,” Rodriguez said about her first Red-White match in 2021. “I just remember it was so crazy. Everyone had so much fun, and it was really enjoyable for me.”

When he addressed the media on Monday, Cook didn’t know the game’s format or how he would divide the teams. He was also uncertain of the Huskers’ top six, saying his goal was to have everyone play and get an opportunity to prove themselves. 

One change to this year’s schedule is the introduction of fan day. Instead of having players sign autographs following the match, Nebraska will open Devaney from 10 a.m. to noon for fans. 

Cook said the idea to move to a fan day came from the marketing department to provide greater access to one of the most high-profile teams in the state. 

“A lot of people can’t get tickets so this is their one chance,” Cook said. “It’s a great way to share stuff with people that are buying tickets or people that can’t come to matches. We’re just trying to hit all of our fans.”

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