LINCOLN, Nebraska — On May 1, John Cook rode a horse around the state capitol in Lincoln with the governor, promoting the Nebraska Cornhusker College Rodeo in Lincoln.
Just another day in the life of the Nebraska volleyball coach, who’s riding pretty high these days.
Cook’s ride through downtown capped off a surreal week in the world of the Huskers. In the previous seven days, Nebraska sold more than 82,900 tickets in 48 hours for its August 30 match against Nebraska-Omaha in Memorial Stadium. Then it swept Wichita State in the team’s lone exhibition match of the spring in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,096 fans in Central City.
Cook said it’s been a whirlwind, and he’s been talking to the players about an “attitude of gratitude” because of the overwhelming response from the fans.
“This week has been mind-boggling to me,” Cook said after the spring match. “This is unbelievable. Nobody’s experienced this or is going through this. No other college program is doing this. So they need to really appreciate it, embrace it and enjoy it.”
Nebraska introduced six newcomers to the lineup from a team that finished the 2022 season in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinal, including five members of the VolleyballMag.com Fab 50, led by No. 1 Harper Murray and No. 2 Bergen Reilly.
Also included among the new faces is Merritt Beason, who transferred from Florida. The junior opposite will replace Whitney Lauenstein, who retired from volleyball after last season.
All five members of the Huskers’ top-ranked recruiting class enrolled in January and immediately changed team dynamics. Beason said it helps that they are a young team with no seniors.
“The freshmen are a fun group, but they’re also very dedicated and you couldn’t even tell that they were freshmen,” she said. “The upperclassmen and those that have been here longer have welcomed us really, really easily, and they made that transition easy for all of us. We just felt welcomed, which I thought allowed our team chemistry to build from the ground up and it’s been really cool so far.”
Nebraska began its beach season a few weeks into the semester and amassed its most successful campaign in its 10 years of play. The Huskers went 15-5 with wins over Texas, which like NU, has indoor players pulling double duty, and a beach-only squad from Oregon. The Huskers also went 13-1 against non-Division I opponents.
Once Nebraska transitioned to indoor practice, Cook said he focused on teaching drills and getting everyone accustomed to how practices operate. Because the whole roster was already enrolled, the Huskers played six-on-six, allowing Cook to mix and match lineups as he figured out combinations and let the athletes get used to playing with each other.
With so many new players, the tenor of the practice gym changed, and for the better, he said.
“I haven’t had to ask them to bring energy,” Cook said in early April after a boisterous practice. “You guys saw practice today. I mean, it’s like this every day. They get after it. There’s energy, and they compete. It’s a very loud group, which is good because typically when you have six new players, they are pretty quiet because they’re just trying to figure things out.”
The spring of wild events started in early April as fans camped out overnight in Central City to secure one of the 2,100 tickets for the spring match. The event sold out in less than an hour.
At the end of February, the Huskers gained notoriety by announcing their intention to play a volleyball match outside at Memorial Stadium. Athletic director Trev Alberts was emphatic that he wanted the regular season attendance record set by Wisconsin against Florida at the Kohl Center with 16,833 fans. Nebraska is scheduled to take on Omaha in the marquee event, and Division II powers Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State College will open the festivities, which also includes a concert with a to-be-announced artist.
Ticket sales opened on Tuesday, April 25 with season-ticket holders purchasing 17,900 tickets before sales were made available to the public at 10 a.m. that Wednesday. The initial allotment was gone in less than an hour, and the NU Ticket Office opened up the rest of the stadium. Only limited-view seats were left by Wednesday night, and all were sold by 6:40 a.m. on Thursday. Later that day, students claimed all the on-field standing-room-only tickets in less than three hours.
In all, more than 82,000 tickets were sold in less than 48 hours, which could make it among the most highly-attended women’s sporting events in the world.
“Nebraska fans never cease to amaze me,” Alberts said. “We knew the interest in this match would be extremely high, but to sell out Memorial Stadium is truly remarkable.”
On the court, Nebraska practiced for a week longer than usual because of a quirk in the academic calendar. The Huskers football spring game was scheduled a week later on April 22, which pushed NU’s lone exhibition against Wichita State to the following Saturday.
As a result, the Huskers spent six weeks in the gym, one more than usual. Plus, with a later end of the semester, they got in an extra week of individual workouts after the spring match.
With the extended spring, Nebraska added a close scrimmage against Creighton. Even though fans weren’t in the stands, freshman Harper Murray said she struggled to breathe before taking the court in anticipation of the competition.
“I’m still getting used to those big moments, but I think overall, I think we played really well as a team,” she said.
Murray, the 6-foot-2 product of Ann Arbor, Michigan, said she had a few nerves against Wichita State, but she didn’t show it. She earned the start and put up a match-high 12 kills on a .391 hitting percentage. While her hitting stole the show with powerful swings and multiple bounces.
Cook said while her offense lived up to the hype, he has been impressed with Murray’s overall game. While he wasn’t sure about her blocking coming to Nebraska, she limited Brylee Kelly to three kills on 19 swings.
“She’s been performing at a high level very consistently, and she’s been passing well,” Cook said. “If you’re gonna play six rotations, you got to be able to pass and she’s done a great job managing all the skills.”
The Huskers’ other freshmen showed out as well. Libero Laney Choboy, a late addition after decommitting from Minnesota, recorded seven digs and made one of the plays of the match with a diving save behind the end line.
Nearly all the starting positions will be up for grabs for the Huskers.
The most certain position is likely two-time Lexi Rodriguez at libero, with Choboy serving as defensive specialist.
Beason played all six rotations at opposite and has taken a leadership role on the team, addressing the crowd after the match. Freshman Caroline Jurevicius looked impressive in the final set with three kills and two blocks.
Murray will battle with juniors Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst for two of NU’s starting outside-hitting spots. Krause, who primarily played on the right side last year, posted four kills and three aces, while Batenhorst played the third set and recorded five kills.
Sophomore Bekka Allick appears to have the inside track on one middle position, while sophomore dual-sport athlete Maggie Mendelson and freshman Andi Jackson angle for the other. Jackson put on a highlight show in the third set with seven kills on eight swings with tremendous leaping skills.
The most uncertain position for the Huskers is setter, where junior Kennedi Orr and Reilly jockey for position.
Orr sat out the beach season as she tried to get back to full strength. The 6-foot junior suffered a knee injury during her senior year of high school and underwent another knee procedure last spring.
Instead of participating in the beach season, she worked with Cook and assistant coach Kelly Hunter to build her fundamentals. Orr said she focused on simplifying everything and rebuilt her setting from footwork to hand placement.
“In college volleyball, you kind of get thrown in, and they expect you to do things. After my surgery, I don’t know if I really have those basics anymore,” Orr said. “Just going back and getting the fundamentals down was super helpful.”
Orr made progress this spring after struggling with consistency last fall. She started the year as the featured setter in a 5-1 system, but Cook switched to two setters a few weeks into the season. She was called for multiple double contacts last fall but not any in the match against the Shockers.
Meanwhile, Reilly looked smooth running the Husker offense against Wichita State. She tallied 28 assists as the Huskers hit .308 in the second set and then .406 in the third with a completely different group of attackers.
Reilly looked smooth as she connected well with middle blockers and added a kill on a setter dump. While he isn’t inclined to name a leader now, Cook said Reilly has an excellent feel for the game and other intangibles.
“The great ones have things you can’t coach,” he said. “She’s got a lot of work to do, but she’s just got great instincts. She just knows when to set things at the right time.”
After taking two weeks off for finals, Nebraska will return to the gym on May 20 before its quadrennial foreign trip to Brazil from May 29-June 14. NU will play against the U19 and U21 Brazil national teams and the Brazil women’s military team.
“We need the work and this gives us a great opportunity,” Cook said. “We don’t have any seniors, and we’ve got a full roster. We’re not waiting for freshmen to come in. So it’s an ideal time to do that. We’re really, really excited about that.”