By Lincoln Arneal
As Nebraska enters the final week of the regular season undefeated, coach John Cook may have finally found a benefit to the short attention span of this generation of college players.
After winning all 27 matches so far, Cook said the Huskers aren’t bothered by the weight of expectations of remaining perfect. He said the social media world has helped them live in the moment and focus on the task at hand instead of worrying about the big picture or their legacy.
“I don’t have to worry anymore about people looking ahead. They have a hard time looking ahead the next 10 to 15 seconds,” Cook said. “It’s just a different world than what older cats are used to.”
The Huskers will try to cap off a perfect regular season this weekend with matches at No. 5 Wisconsin and Minnesota, which is fighting for its postseason life.
Nebraska has only finished a regular season undefeated twice in program history. The 1994 team went undefeated before falling in the regional final to Penn State to end the year 31-1.
During Cook’s first year in 2000, the Huskers went 34-0 and won the program’s second national title, but the journey wore on them.
After dropping six sets during the first 27 matches, including a five-set win against No. 3 UCLA, NU was running on fumes the final few weeks. In their last seven matches, Nebraska dropped seven sets. It had to rally from 2-1 deficits against Kansas State to close out the regular season, South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament and Wisconsin in the championship match.
None of those comebacks was more precarious than against South Carolina. The Gamecocks led 12-8 in the fourth set before NU rallied to stay alive and win 15-13 in the fifth, which used rally scoring, unlike the first four sets.
“That was an exhausting season because we were undefeated and I think we hit the wall,” Cook said. “Twenty-three years ago, that was a big deal. It became all-consuming for us. I just remember how exhausting it was.”
Cook said he doesn’t feel that way about this year’s team. He’s helped them take on a different mindset about how they have to fight for every point. It doesn’t matter if they won the last point, match or 20 in a row.
“The game doesn’t know who’s supposed to win, so that’s how we’ve been framing it all year. So that’s why we don’t worry or talk about it. It can become a real big burden because you’re always trying to protect something. “
Co-captain Merritt Beason said pressure comes with winning and the players can’t do anything to stop it because it isn’t their creation.
“That pressure is going to come with being undefeated and you can’t really do anything about it,” the junior opposite said. “You can control how you react to it and how you respond to it. We’ve done a very good job of just being where we are and kind of minimizing the outside voices.”
Beason said the team has worked on narrowing its focus to the task at hand. Whether that’s only looking at the next opponent, being intentional in practice or living in the moment.
Staying present is a skill that NU has worked on. The players remind each other when their minds wander, and the staff helps too. Beason said it’s OK to let it go sometimes because they’ve been working toward these moments the entire year and want to appreciate what they’ve accomplished.
“This is what we’ve been dreaming of as a team since January,” she said. “We’re kind of getting to live out those dreams, but also just reminding each other to stay present in the moment has helped us a ton.”
Cook sounded more optimistic about Lindsay Krause practicing this week. He didn’t say it would happen but didn’t rule it out.
The junior outside hitter has been out since injuring her ankle in practice on Oct. 17. She’s been working with athletic trainer Jolene Emricson and strength coach Brian Kmitta.
Krause no longer uses crutches or a walking boot and was jumping with the team during the locker room celebration on Sunday. The key now is how her body reacts to the training session and how sore she is.
“She’s ramping up every day,” Cook said. “It’s just how fast we can push her. I don’t know how she recovered from yesterday today, but we’re going to push as hard as we can.”
Beason knew how big volleyball was in Nebraska when she transferred from Florida after last season, but nothing could have prepared her for the everyday interactions.
On her official visit, Beason went to dinner with Lexi Rodriguez and the coaching staff. An older woman approached their table and, according to Beason, was in tears while asking Rodriguez for a picture.
Now Beason is the one getting stopped during a Target run for photos and well-wishes from fans.
“It’s really, really special, especially for women’s sports, to have that,” Beason said. “Every single day, I’m so grateful to be a part of it and grateful to be in the position that I am because it’s very, very special. You can’t find that a lot of places.”
Freshman setter Bergen Reilly told a story on the “Six Rotations” podcast about how she and some teammates were riding downtown on electric scooters during the summer and were recognized by a group on a party bike.
“It just shows that Lincoln is all about volleyball,” Reilly said. “Nebraska really does have a huge love for volleyball.”
More Weekly Awards
Rodriguez picked up another award on Monday as the Big Ten recognized her as the defensive player of the week for the second time this season. It’s her fifth career weekly DPOW honor.
The junior averaged 5.67 digs per set last week as she helped NU hold its opponents to a .086 hitting percentage. She also chipped in six assists.
For the season, Nebraska has won 17 awards over the 13 weeks of the season. It’s been recognized all but two of the weeks, only missing Sept. 5 and Sept. 11.
In addition to Rodriguez, Beason has won four player-of-the-week honors, and Krause has won one; Reilly was named top setter four times and the best freshman twice. Harper Murray earned three freshman awards, while Andi Jackson was recognized once.