Here we go again, with the Nebraska volleyball team set to play a familiar opponent in the NCAA Tournament, with this match coming on the biggest stage in the sport at the NCAA Final Four.
The sixth-ranked Huskers will play No. 3 Illinois in the national semifinals on Thursday. The match is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., and will be televised on ESPN.
Nebraska held its final practice in Lincoln for the 2018 season on Tuesday afternoon, and then flew to Minneapolis to begin Final Four week. The team will have an open practice at the Target Center at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Nebraska and Illinois split two matches against each other this season, with the road team winning each time. Illinois won the last match, on Oct. 27, in four sets.
Nebraska is getting used to playing familiar opponents in the tournament, and coach John Cook and the Huskers have fared well in these scenarios.
In the Elite Eight match last week, the Huskers beat Oregon for a second time this season. In 2017, Nebraska beat Penn State in both the regular season match and the national semifinals.
In the national championship match last season, Nebraska beat Florida to avenge a loss to the Gators in the first week of the season, although Nebraska didn’t have its starting setter for the first meeting. In the 2015 national championship match, Nebraska avenged an earlier loss that season by beating Texas.
Neither team has lost since Nebraska and Illinois played Oct. 27. Nebraska has won all 12 matches since. Illinois brings a 17-match winning streak into the match.
Cook feels good about the matchup with the Illini.
“I just think we match up with them physically, and we play a similar style of volleyball,” Cook said. “We’ve seen them twice, so we have a comfort level there. I think it’s a good matchup.”
During practice Tuesday, Cook told the Huskers which Illinois players they could expect to be matched up against, making the match more personal.
“Our players know their players, and there is a familiarity,” Cook said. “We play them. We know what works, what doesn’t work, and we got to be prepared if something changes.”
Nebraska freshman setter Nicklin Hames thinks playing Illinois again will be fun.
“We know the players, they know us, and we’re tied right now, so it’s going to be a fun, competitive game to break the tie,” Hames said.
Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins also is excited about the matchup.
“It’s kind of like a redemption game for us,” Stivrins said. “I think we’ve grown so much as a team since then, so we’re excited to play them again.”
Nebraska won the first match in the season series in four sets. Nebraska ended Illinois’ 14-match winning streak to start the season, and held Illinois to a .157 hitting percentage, its lowest of the season. NU freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach came up big in that match with season highs in both kills (nine) and hitting percentage (.818). The Huskers served eight aces.
In the second match, Illinois won in four sets. Nebraska lost two close sets to end the match, which was a problem for the Huskers for part of the season. Illinois had improved on defense by the second match, and held Nebraska to its second-lowest hitting percentage of the season (.099).
Now Nebraska hasn’t lost even a set in nearly a month, and will bring a lot of confidence into Thursday’s match.
“Our team is just getting it right now,” Stivrins said. “We’re playing for the person next to us, and for ourselves, and we’re trying to prove a point right now that even though we won it last year, we’re not done. We can do it again."