By Lincoln Arneal
Nebraska is used to playing in front of big crowds.
The Huskers played in front of an NCAA record 18,755 spectators in the national championship match last year. They have been involved in 15 of the 20 largest crowds to watch a college volleyball match. NU hosts more than 8,000 people for every home match at the Devaney Center.
However, it hits a little differently when Nebraska and Creighton meet for their annual regular season match. Senior Kenzie Knuckles said she had a lot of fun last year when the teams played, and always enjoys the in-state rivalry.
“It was super fun last year… feeling like the whole state of Nebraska was there,” she said. “We get that feeling at Devaney, but they’re all our fans. (I like) knowing that it’s like Nebraska versus Nebraska.”
The second-ranked Huskers and No. 17 Bluejays will renew their rivalry Wednesday at 5 p.m. at CHI Health Center Omaha.
Nebraska was scheduled to host the in-state series this year, but with the Final Four scheduled for the CHI Center, NU coach John Cook fired off an email and the programs agreed to switch the venue. As a result, the Huskers will host Creighton in the next two seasons.
During the 2018 match, the schools set a regular season record for attendance at 14,022. The record might be exceeded this year. As of Friday, Creighton had sold more than 13,000 tickets.
“I think we thrive in big environments and big crowds,’ sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said. “To be up in that gym where our goal is to be back there in December, I think it’ll be a good environment for us and a good test because Creighton is a good team.”
The regular season record might be in danger next week as defending national champion Wisconsin is hosting Florida on Sept. 16 at the Kohl Center, which seats 17,230, and tickets are sold out. However, Cook is glad to see bigger crowds supporting volleyball no matter the venue.
“It’s good to challenge the fan base and keep building,” Cook said. “It’s great. If they break all these records then we may have to go to (Pinnacle Bank Arena) and make (NU Athletic Director) Trev (Alberts) happy.”
TO 6-2 OR NOT TO 6-2: Nebraska has used four combinations at setter in five matches this season. Sophomore Kennedi Orr has started twice, while junior Anni Evans started another match. They both shared setting duties with senior Nicklin Hames as part of a two-setter system.
While the setter position might be the biggest difference for the offense, it isn’t the only criteria for Cook to base his decision on which system to run. He said he gets a 60-page scouting report on the Huskers after each match, which is full of trends and statistics.
The 6-2 does cause a few defensive issues as the Huskers have two rotations where they only have Rodriguez and outside hitter Madi Kubik on serve receive. However, Cook said with Rodriguez, Knuckles, Hames and Kubik, they have the players to be exceptional.
“There’s no reason why it can’t be,” Cooks said. “We got moving parts and different players. We’ve been playing a lot of people so it might take a while to gel… We just have to maximize what we’ve got and figure out what’s best.”
While no team has won a national championship with a 6-2 system since Southern Cal in 2002, Cook doesn’t know why more teams haven’t won it since. Pitt made the national semifinal last year with two setters.
Nebraska made the 2005 national championship match with a two-setter system with Maggie Griffin and Dani Busboom. The Huskers won the Big 12 title in 2010 with Lauren Cook and Sydney Anderson splitting setting duties.
Cook said the biggest challenge is the immense talent and depth it takes to play at an elite level. The first step is to have enough outside hitters. Then teams need two good setters and can pass well.
“It does give you advantages because it’s hard to prepare for and we can be more creative offensively,” Cook said. “You’ve got three hitters in the front row all the time. We’ve done it in the past and had two great teams and when we did it.”
Teams might prefer the 5-1 because traditionally setters are leaders on the court and setting full-time allows them to get into a better rhythm. However, this year’s Nebraska team might be better set up to handle the lack of leadership from setter as its three captains are Knuckles, Kubik and Rodriguez, the latter two of which are on the court for every rotation.
In the end, Cook said he doesn’t have a preference between the two.
“Whatever one gives us the best chance to win,” he said.
PROSPECT CALLED UP: Nebraska commit Bergen Reilly was called up to the senior national team last week to participate in the NORCECA Final Six Pan-Am Cup. She was needed after another setter backed out at the last minute because of COVID-19.
Reilly, who won the gold medal at the U19 Pan Am Cup, played the final nine points of the United States match against Mexico on Sunday. The Bishop O’Gorman Sioux Falls (S.D.) senior recorded three assists as she served and set for the US National Team to help them close out the victory. The US has matches every day this week before the tournament wraps up on Saturday.
Cook said having a high school player join the national team is rare but a special opportunity.
“It’s kind of a big moment for a developing athlete. So it’s pretty cool,” Cook said.