Volleyball Tournament Notes: Huskers see themselves as underdogs heading into NCAA tournament; Bluejays net one goal by hosting first-, second-round matches with No. 9 seed in NCAA tourney

Volleyball Tournament Notes: Huskers see themselves as underdogs heading into NCAA tournament; Bluejays net one goal by hosting first-, second-round matches with No. 9 seed in NCAA tourney
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — After a regular season in which Nebraska defied preseason expectations by winning a share of the Big Ten championship, the Huskers asked John Cook if they could embrace the underdog spirit by bringing their pets to the Devaney Center on Sunday night to watch the unveiling of the NCAA tournament brackets.

Maybe the Huskers could sniff out what the selection committee was thinking when it left Nebraska outside the top four national seeds.

Instead, NU was the No. 5 overall seed, and could be looking at traveling to Lexington, Kentucky, if it hopes to make a third straight trip to the final four in Kansas City. The top four went to Penn State, Florida, Stanford and Kentucky.

“This year, we were kind of viewed as one of the underdogs, and it means a lot to us,” said outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, who brought Cash, her miniature Australian.

“A lot of the girls on our team have dogs, and all the coaches do, so we thought that’s kind of a good representation of how we’re viewed this year and how we’ve gone about things.”

The Huskers start their postseason Friday night, hosting Stony Brook (18-12). The America East champ is making its first NCAA tournament appearance after unexpectedly winning the conference tournament. The Seawolves went 6-6 in America East play before upsetting top-seeded Albany in the semifinals.

Florida State (18-10) and Washington State (17-15) will play in Friday’s first-round match at 4:30 p.m. at the Devaney Center. The winner will meet the Nebraska-Stony Brook winner in the second round at 7 p.m. Saturday.

If the Huskers win two matches in Lincoln, they could be headed to Lexington, the regional site from which they advanced during the 2015 NCAA title run. There, they could face a former Big 12 rival, Colorado or 12th-seeded Baylor, in the Round of 16. No. 13 seed BYU or No. 4 Kentucky, coached by former Husker assistant Craig Skinner, loom as potential opponents in the regional final.

“I think some of us have played (in Lexington) and we know what it’s like to win there,” Foecke said, “so hopefully we can go there and do the same thing.”

The Husker players took the seeding in stride, but felt they had a strong case for a regional top spot. NU owned 11 wins after Sept. 1 over teams in the top 30 of the RPI. Florida had one.

The Gators own a head-to-head win over Nebraska in August, but the Huskers pushed Florida to five games in Gainesville despite missing injured starting setter Kelly Hunter. Nebraska also was ranked as the No. 2 overall seed when the NCAA released a preliminary top 10 Nov. 1. Since then, the Huskers are 8-0, losing just two sets.

“You guys can do the math and see how many ranked teams we beat,” Cook said. “It is what it is, but nothing surprises me anymore with the committee and the tournament. It’s their party and we got invited to it, so we’ll go have fun.”

Nebraska was one of eight Big Ten teams in the field of 64, second only to the Pac-12, which got nine in. Besides Skinner’s Kentucky team, two more former NU assistants guided their teams into the tournament.

Dani Busboom Kelly’s Louisville team won the ACC championship after a 12-game improvement in her first season. The Cardinals will face Northern Iowa in the first round in Minneapolis.

After missing the postseason last year, Illinois, coached by Chris Tamas, got an at-large bid and will play Hawaii on Friday in Seattle.

“They’re great coaches, and Nebraska builds great coaches,” Hunter said. “I figured that they’d do well this season. It’s really cool for them, and I’m really happy for them.”

To Cook, the No. 5 seed contained a silver lining. Nebraska gets another chance to feed off the underdog label, which fueled the team’s Big Ten title run.

Plus, NU’s path to the final four won’t include another Big Ten opponent and won’t send Nebraska to Florida or Texas, teams Cook singled out for causing the Huskers matchup problems.

“Sometimes it’s not always about your seed,” Cook said. “It’s about your draw, and I think we got a really good draw.”

Bluejays net one goal by hosting first-, second-round matches with No. 9 seed in NCAA tourney

It’s what they worked for and what they thought they deserved, so the Bluejays weren’t surprised that they’d been selected as one of the NCAA tournament’s 16 hosts.

But seeing it officially announced Sunday night?

With TVs all around, they sat together at a table inside The Session Room restaurant and watched the unveiling of the field. It didn’t take long for the ESPNU telecast to display the list of teams the volleyball selection committee seeded ninth to 16th overall. Right at the top of the screen — there was Creighton at No. 9.

They cheered and clapped. Some players hugged. Others leapt out of their seats.

This is what they so proclaimed as their goal in August — something that hadn’t happened in program history. But to achieve it? To find out that you are going to play at least one NCAA tournament game on your home floor?

It was a special moment for the Jays, who’ll open the 64-team event by playing Coastal Carolina at 7 p.m. Friday at Sokol Arena.

“To see that 9 was just honestly an honor,” junior Jaali Winters said. “It’s so cool to see how much the committee respects us. We’re just blessed to be here and in the situation that we’re in. We’re really excited about it.”

The euphoria won’t linger for too long, though.

Before chatting with reporters after the selection show, Winters already pulled up the box score from CU’s first-round match against Coastal Carolina two years ago. Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth admitted she’d spent much of Sunday morning and afternoon mapping out a plan for the week — which won’t resemble the same structure as Creighton’s six previous NCAA berths now that the team is staying at home for the opening weekend.

The coaches will break down game film Monday and have a plan in place by Tuesday, when the team steps out on the practice floor.

“Now, it’s go-time,” Booth said.

That’s because the Jays’ goals extend beyond enjoying a night of volleyball with a couple thousand home fans.

Creighton reached its first elite eight last season — and it hopes to extend an NCAA run even further this time around.

CU must first get by Sun Belt champion Coastal Carolina (20-7), which lost a four-set match to the Jays in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. The Chanticleers’ top setter, junior Sara Boothe, is from Lincoln.

If Creighton wins Friday, it would play either Missouri State (28-5) or Michigan State (21-8) Saturday. And if the Jays reach the Round of 16, they could set up a rematch against No. 8 overall seed Washington (24-7), which Creighton beat in the season’s opening weekend. No. 1 overall Penn State (29-1) would likely stand in the way of CU’s first final four berth.

The Jays will do their best not to extend their focus beyond Friday, though.

“At this point, every single team is going to be tough,” junior Taryn Kloth said. “Every single team is going to give it their all. So we have to come out strong.”

Especially as the host, which Creighton should know from its recent experiences.

Creighton’s reached the Round of 16 the last two seasons by defeating the home team (North Carolina in 2015, Kansas in 2016).

There’s some added pressure as a host. Some extra distractions, too. The Jays understand that.

But they’d never turn down a chance to play inside a gym full of Creighton fans. Now they have to take advantage of it.

“We’re hoping it’ll be a packed house,” Booth said. “We’ve been looking forward to this opportunity for a long time. It should be a pretty loud, fun atmosphere.”