On Friday in Eugene, Oregon, #1 Nebraska Volleyball begins the defense of their 2015 National Championship against #10 Florida Friday and #2 Texas Saturday.
The Huskers return most of their biggest contributors from last season’s campaign. Mikaela Foecke, who had an outstanding freshman year, returns as outside hitter. Her opposite, a position filled primarily by the physics-defying Kelsey Fien, is not set in stone, but will likely be graduate transfer Andie Malloy. Malloy led the Baylor Bears last season with 308 kills to hit .191. However, Coach Cook is not shy about replacing a struggling hitter, so we may see Olivia Boender or Annika Albrecht get reps.
The other position where we’ll see a new face is middle blocker. Cecilia Hall had the most sets opposite Amber Rolfzen, with Meghan Haggerty also getting time, though an injury cost her part of her senior year. Both Haggerty and Hall have graduated, but LSU transfer Briana Holman will be eligible this year after sitting out her transfer season. In 2014, Holman was a part of 166 blocks for the Tigers, 29 solo.
Every other position will be a familiar face. After a breakout 2015 season, Kelly Hunter will return as the setter. Hunter ran a clean, fast offense last year, and she was always a threat in the front row with her setter dump. Kadie Rolfzen will return as the right side hitter, which gives the Huskers a talented All-American outside at both pins. As mentioned previously, Amber Rolfzen will be back middle blocker and Mikaela Foecke returns as outside hitter. Sydney Townsend and Annika Albrecht should see time as defensive specialists.
Justine Wong-Orantes will be back for her senior season at libero. Lost in the excitement this summer of three Huskers on the Olympic team was the fact that Wong-Orantes played for the other national team in the Pan-American Cup. The team took the bronze medal, and Wong-Orantes’ name moved up the list of women who could possibly replace Kayla Banwarth on the next Olympic team.
The Huskers have a tough start to the season, playing in the second of four scheduled VERT Challenge tournaments. The tournament features the Huskers, the #10 Florida Gators, #2 Texas Longhorns, and the Oregon Ducks. This season, the Huskers will start their season against the Gators on Friday night at 6:00 pm CDT, and against the Longhorns Saturday at 5:30 pm CDT. Both Matches will be available on the Pac-12 Network.
This season’s schedule features 25 televised matches between NET, BTN, BTN Plus ($$), and the ESPN networks. BTN’s online and TV platforms will feature most of the matches.
After the trip to Eugene, the Husker return home to host the Nebraska Invite featuring Iowa State, Syracuse, and Oregon State. Then the Huskers travel to Albuquerque for the Lobo classic against Arkansas and New Mexico. The Lobo Classic also pits the Huskers against Montreal for an exhibition match. The Husker close out the non-conference part of the schedule with the Ameritas Players’ Challenge which will have Creighton, Gonzaga, and Montana State coming to the Devaney Center.
Then begins the gauntlet that is the B1G season. There are seven B1G teams in the AVCA Top 25 poll. Nebraska (1), Wisconsin (3), and Minnesota (4) are in the top five with Penn State coming in at ninth. There’s a good reason that whichever teams from the conference make it to the Final Four are favorites, they’ve seen tough competition week in and week out.
The Huskers are the preseason favorite to win the conference, which would be the team’s first title since the 2011 season, their first in the B1G. The Huskers do not travel to Madison this year, but get the Badgers in Lincoln, although the team has Minnesota and Penn State twice, both home and away.
The VERT Challenge is a huge early season test. If the Huskers can come back from Eugene perfect, that will be a HUGE positive to start the season. However, if the Huskers play solid matches against both Florida and Texas in neutral site matches, even losses don’t hurt. Expect to see Coach Cook toy with some different line ups through the first couple of weekends before settling on what should be the regular rotation by the Ameritas Players’ Challenge.
It’s near impossible to predict whether or not the Huskers can repeat. At this point last year, no one outside of Husker practice had any idea how dominant Foecke would be, nor did any pundits (present company included) think the Huskers would win it all in Omaha. That being said, the Huskers are about as well set up to repeat as any team since Penn State in 2013-2014. It’s not too much to expect the Huskers to repeat, but it will be tough as they navigate the stormy waters of the B1G.