Thrilling start to volleyball season

Nebraska media relations

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Had this been one of those old-time movie serials, Nebraska's volleyball team would have been tied to the train tracks with the locomotive fast approaching. How were the Huskers going to get out of this bind?

Defending national champion UCLA, which started this season ranked No. 1, had rallied after being down two sets to none. The Bruins had begun to find some rhythm with their freshman setter, and they led the deciding fifth set, 9-5.

Nebraska was six points from what would have been an emotionally tough loss. The 4,186 fans -- yet another sellout at NU Coliseum -- were all still hoping for a chance to go into full-out vocal eruption mode and help the Huskers untie the knots and drag themselves to victorious safety.

And then ... that's exactly what happened. The old building got louder and louder ... Nebraska started to climb back ... UCLA looked like it might still hold on ... Nebraska tied it ... then the Bruins were just two points away ... then Nebraska surged ahead and won 15-13, as Big Red love abounded, reverberating off the brick walls.

Wow, this kind of drama in August? Volleyball's final four is three months away. Was there really that much on the line?

Well, yes and no. Obviously, we've only just begun. But for the Huskers -- who were stunned by one of their former Big 12 compatriots, Kansas State, here at home in last year's NCAA tournament -- winning Saturday in five sets was a statement made to themselves. They had a stinging sense of falling short of their potential in 2011, despite winning the Big Ten title in their first season in that challenging league. And for a program that's won three NCAA titles, disappointment lingers. It also motivates.

"In that fifth game, there was a totally changed vibe -- everybody could feel it," Nebraska senior Hannah Werth said Saturday night. "I'm so proud of everybody. I honestly came down to the locker room bawling because I was so happy that everybody had a part in this."

That includes the fans, of course. Werth is a passionate kid, but to further explain the emotion she was feeling, you have to remember that every match played here at the Coliseum this season is part of a protracted goodbye. Constructed in 1925, the Coliseum was built to last. It's been the home of Nebraska volleyball since the program's inception in 1975.

But with a new arena for basketball opening in Lincoln, the school's hoops teams' longtime home court, the Devaney Center, will be transformed into a volleyball-specific environment.

Nostalgia aside, it's absolutely the right move. The Coliseum has been good to the Huskers; their sellout streak (now at 166) dates to 2001. But there aren't enough bathrooms -- women, especially, spend a lot of time in line -- or seating availability. The Huskers have outgrown the place.

Devaney will seat around 6,000 for volleyball, and Nebraska will sell that out, too. With the additional seating, more students will have the chance to come to games. And they will come: Volleyball matches are an event at Nebraska.

It's likely that once fans are in Devaney, many will wonder how they ever put up with the Coliseum. Yet the building always will hold magic memories. And there just aren't many women's athletic facilities that reach that kind of esteem.

"The Coliseum is amazing, and we know this is the last run here," Werth said. "We respect it, and we respect all the players who came before us."

One of those was Jordan Larson, part of the recent silver-winning U.S. indoor volleyball team at the London Olympics. Larson also was a key player on Nebraska's last NCAA title-winning team, in 2006.

The Huskers had a home-state advantage that year, with the final four being held in nearby Omaha. This year, there is an NCAA regional in Omaha, and Nebraska coach John Cook said this opening-weekend setup was similar to what the Huskers may face if they advance to the Sweet 16. (Which, last year notwithstanding, they usually do.)

"You've got to win two big matches to win a regional," Cook said.

Nebraska actually won three matches this past weekend, beating Saint Louis on Friday and the top-ranked Bruins on Saturday in Lincoln, and then Notre Dame on Sunday at CenturyLink Center in Omaha. Suffice to say -- with no offense to the Billikens or Irish -- that winning a regional probably will require Nebraska defeating two teams as good as UCLA.

Meanwhile, this visit to the heartland was part of UCLA's plan for the future, too. The Bruins have to replace graduated setter Lauren Van Orden; rookie Becca Strehlow did most of the setting against the Huskers. UCLA hitters, including All-American Rachael Kidder, will have to adjust to her, and vice versa. The bugs are not all going to be worked out in one weekend, but there was plenty to like about how the Bruins played.

For one thing, they are huge, and will evolve into a formidable defensive team. The hitting chemistry will develop, as it did in the course of the match with Nebraska. Coach Michael Sealy has lined up some more road tests for the Bruins before they start Pac-12 play, including visits to Hawaii and Colorado State.

"It's a same lesson we learned last year, when we went on to win the title: It's all about failure recovery," Sealy said of facing the Huskers. "The talk we had being down 0-2 was, 'If we don't learn to battle in this situation, then coming to Nebraska was a failure.'

"So after we won the third set, I told the players, 'Hey, it's a victory.' Because now not only did we learn how to bounce back, but we got another 25 points to keep learning about ourselves."

In fact, the Bruins did even better than that: They pushed it all the way to a fifth set.

"You've got to give it to UCLA, they were a great blocking team," said Nebraska senior Gina Mancuso. "They were all on us.

"Being the last season in the Coliseum, every match here we need to cherish. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of nerves."

And a pretty cool way for both teams to get this season into full swing.

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