NCAA volleyball opening day! Nebraska-Florida tops great first-day slate

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Nebraska coach John Cook watches during Thursday's practice

This is our opening day!
Friday marks the start of the NCAA women’s college volleyball season.
Here at Lincoln, Nebraska, it’s a gathering of four teams in the AVCA preseason poll’s top 18, including last year’s NCAA-championship match finalists.
There are so many great match-ups as action gets under way, the first of four weekends before conference play begins.
A list follows of where all the ranked and power-five conference teams are playing. And to watch, go to VolleyballMag.com’s TV  and streaming listings.

LINCOLN, Nebraska — As his Oregon team finished practice Thursday, Matt Ulmer looked around the quiet Bob Devaney Center, a building that will be filled to the brim and rocking Friday.

“I love this tournament,” he said.

What’s not to love?

This is Friday’s lineup:

Oregon, ranked 18th in the AVCA preseason poll, vs. No. 3 Texas at 3:30 p.m. Central and then the host team, second-ranked Nebraska playing the team it beat in last year’s NCAA title match, No. 7 Florida, at 6 p.m.

And then Saturday, Texas plays Florida and then Nebraska takes on Oregon as this four-year gathering of the same teams comes to its contractual conclusion.

The non-Nebraska matches will be streamed free by the host school and the Huskers matches will be on the Big Ten Network.

One thing we won’t see:

The highly anticipated debut of Nebraska sophomore outside Lexi Sun, who transferred from Texas after getting 337 kills, second on the team. She is nursing a sore back, although she practiced Thursday.

But that’s secondary to a great way to kick off the season.

“I love this tournament and bummed that this will be the end of it,” Ulmer said.”It’s been a really great experience for us.”

Even after what happened last year at Florida.

Oregon — and then new coach Ulmer — opened it season by upsetting Nebraska, which was ranked No. 5 at the time.

“I was ready to retire. I really should have. That was a mistake. It’s only gotten worse,” Ulmer joked.

That’s because in the next match, which Oregon lost to Texas, outside hitter Brooke Van Sickle hurt her knee. Van Sickle, just 5-foot-9, is nonetheless one of those players who simply makes things go for her team.

Oregon is glad to have Brooke Van Sickle back in the lineup/Oregon photo

As a freshman, the product of Battle Ground, Washington, was a key cog, both at outside and back row, for a team that finished 21-10 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That offseason, head coach Jim Moore was out and Ulmer, the associate head coach, got the job.

And he went into 2017 with high hopes. In that win over Nebraska, Van Sickle had 11 kills with a career-high 22 digs and three aces. And against Texas, she still had 10 kills and 15 digs, finishing the match in obvious discomfort. She played in four more matches before taking a medical redshirt.

The resulting surgery was in October.

“I had a micro-fracture procedure,” she said Thursday. “What happened in my knee was that when I landed it created a hole in my cartilage and during the procedure they went in and drilled holes. Now I produce cartilage.”

She was out six months.

Oregon finished 18-12, 10-10 in the Pac-12, sweeping Kennesaw State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before getting swept by BYU.

It was hard for Van Sickle to watch.

“We lost to teams we shouldn’t have lost to and that hurt when it came to being a host (the NCAA Tournament),” Van Sickle said. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.”

“There so many positives that came out of it. I thought we looked really good for a match and a half before Brooke went down. I thought we were a pretty good team,” Ulmer said.

“We just didn’t have the depth to compete at that level without Brooke’s defense and gamesmanship. Everybody had to learn a lot, including myself, and hopefully that prepares us for this year.”

This year’s Oregon team looks loaded. The middles are junior Ronika Stone and senior Sumeet Gill.

August Raskie is a senior setter who Ulmer declared “I think she’s going to be one of the best setters in the country.”

The opposite is Willow Johnson, a lefty who is primed for a big season — “she’s in beast mode right now,” Ulmer said — and there will be plenty of competition at outsides, including Van Sickle, junior Jolie Rasmussen — who has fought her own injury battles — senior Lindsey Vander Weide, and North Carolina transfer Taylor Borup, who also plays right side,

Ulmer is also excited about freshman libero Brooke Nuneviller.

“She’s really a special player. She just gets the game,” Ulmer said. “I really think she has the most experience of anyone on our team and she’s a freshman.”

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Nebraska coach John Cook made sure to note that eight of his 15 players have not played a point at Nebraska, although they did get to experience scrimmaging before a crowd of about 8,000 here last week. And one of his players is senior outside Mikaela Foecke, who has won two NCAA titles in her career.

“My analogy is I feel like a kindergarten teacher,” Cook said, “I have to explain everything.

“But kindergarten is a cool time. You have fun. You learn a lot. We have to learn how to line up and take directions. It’s kind of been a cool experience. I just wish our preseason was a little longer.”

This tournament allows him to “really see where we’re, what we need to work on, and these are important matches early,” Cook said. “So there’s a big sense of urgency. For our team this year especially, I think this will be a great learning experience.

“I’ll see where our start point is. I have no idea where our start point is.”

Then he laughed.

“I didn’t either last year.”

But last year, Nebraska played in this tournament without setter Kelly Hunter, who ended up being the VolleyballMag.com national player of the year. She, along with middle Briana Holman and outside were among five who graduated.

Texas lost Chiaka Ogbogu, Ebony Nwanebu and Cat McCoy, and, of course, Sun.

“Each year is different,” Cook said. “Texas graduated some, Florida graduated a lot, we graduated a lot, Oregon returns a lot. So it should be interesting.”

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We already mentioned Nuneviller, but the other teams here have some outstanding freshmen who might well be in the spotlight here.

Texas redshirted Brionne Butler last  year, but the 6-4 middle from Kendleton, Texas, is a spectacular leaper expected make quite an impact.

Logan Eggleson is a 6-2 outside from Brentwood, Tenn., and Sydney Peterson is a libero from Dike, Iowa. Both could start.

And Florida has Thayer Hall, who, among other things, was the MVP of the USA’s victory in the Pan Am Games the summer before her senior year in high school. She’s a powerful 6-3 outside from Spartanburg, S.C., who was the Gatorade national HS player of the year.

“She’s got a heavy arm and the body,” veteran coach Mary Wise said, referring to lanky graduated senior Carli Snyder, an outside hitter who did everything for the Gators. “Carli didn’t play six rotations regularly until later in her career because physically she wasn’t ready to handle the load. That’s a body that’s ready to handle the load.”

Wise said that freshman setter Marlie Monserez, whose senior sister Allie is the starting setter, might well get into the mix. She’s one of six freshman on a roster that lost All-Americans Snyder and middle Rhamat Alhassan.

Wise said that 6-2 lefty Haley Warner, from Fayetteville, Ark., has a chance to get on the floor. but it’s more likely North Carolina sophomore transfer Holly Carlton, who’s 6-7, will play right side. She also set at UNC.

“Last year I could have told you what the lineup was before preseason,” Wise said with a smile. “We are still tinkering with it and it may look different in set two. It could be different from set to set, match to match, month to month. We think it’s an advantage because of the depth. We have more options than we had a year ago and we want to make that our advantage.”

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Friday’s power-five conference schedule:

ACC — Clemson is at South Carolina and plays East Tennessee State and Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Georgia Tech plays host to Idaho State and Winthrop, Louisville is home for Tennessee-Martin and Southern Illinois, Wake Forest is home for Maryland, Notre Dame is home against Weber State, Duke is the host for BYU, Florida State plays Minnesota and North Carolina faces Wisconsin at Minnesota, Virginia plays Ole Miss and Oregon State at Iowa, Pittsburgh is home for Butler and Cal Poly, Boston College plays host to Hartford, Virginia Tech faces USC Upstate at Charlotte, and Miami is home for FAU.

Big 12 — TCU is home for UAB and Green Bay, West Virginia is the host to Georgia Southern and UConn, Texas Tech plays Northwestern State and North Dakota, Oklahoma plays Xavier at NIU, Texas takes on Oregon at Nebraska, Kansas plays at Arkansas, Iowa State entertains Ole Miss, and Baylor faces visiting LSU.

Big Ten — Purdue is home for Wofford and Bowling Green, Northwestern plays South Dakota and New Hampshire at Milwaukee, Indiana plays UNLV and LIU-Brooklyn at UNLV, Illinois faces UNCW and Colorado State at Colorado State, Maryland is at Wake Forest, Wisconsin plays North Carolina at Minnesota, Nebraska is home for Florida, Ohio State plays host to Albany, Michigan State is at Tennessee, Penn State is home for Eastern Kentucky, Minnesota is home for Florida State and Rutgers plays at Cal.

Pac-12 — UCLA was scheduled to play at Hawai’i, but canceled that trip because of the hurricane and Gonzaga, which was also supposed to be at Hawai’i, plays Saturday and Sunday at UCLA. Friday,  Colorado plays Oral Roberts and North Florida at Wyoming, Arizona plays CSUN and Utah State at Sacramento, Cal is the host for Chicago State and Rutgers, Arizona State plays host to UT Arlington and New Mexico State, Oregon plays Texas at Nebraska, Oregon State plays Virginia at Iowa, Utah is home for UC Irvine, Washington is home for San Diego, and USC plays host to Kentucky.

SEC — Ole Miss plays Virginia and Iowa State, Mississippi State plays Mississippi Valley and Louisiana-Monroe, South Carolina plays Texas A&M Corpus Christi and ETSU, Kentucky plays Creighton and USC, Missouri plays Delaware State, Alabama faces Western Kentucky, Texas A&M plays Ohio, Arkansas plays Kansas, Georgia plays Coastal Carolina, Florida is at Nebraska, Auburn plays High Point, Tennessee plays Michigan State, and LSU Is at Baylor.

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