MINNEAPOLIS — If you were within earshot of the Nebraska volleyball team’s sideline huddle Thursday night, you perhaps were inspired to do a bit more with your life, such was the intensity, focus and desire to prevail.
You also might’ve learned to not mess with Mikaela Foecke when she’s on a mission.
“We are not losing this (freaking) match!” the Husker senior yelled in the huddle late in the fifth set of her team’s triumph against Illinois in the NCAA Final Four at the Target Center.
Only she didn’t say “freaking,” if you catch my drift.
So, yes, there was memorable intensity. But something else struck me during the moments right after the match in a quiet Nebraska locker room: The Huskers didn’t seem particularly impressed with themselves even though they had just escaped a 2-0 disadvantage to advance to the national championship match Saturday night against top-ranked Stanford.
It was surprisingly calm in that locker room. That’s probably because Nebraska expects to win championships. John Cook’s program has become that strong. It’s that strong in part because it gears its training for uncomfortable moments in monster matches — moments many athletes simply aren’t equipped to handle.
“We have high-stress and high-pressure drills every day,” said Nebraska sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who sat quietly at her locker stall. “I think those drills help us come out on top and be cool in those big moments. With Nebraska volleyball, coming here, you have to have that mindset. You have to be able to face anyone at any time.”
If you’re a Nebraska outside hitter, that might mean squaring off at the net in practice against three male blockers. Cook sets the score at 10-10. The hitter has to get to 15 points, preferably before the blockers get there.
“If she doesn’t get there, she keeps going until she does,” Stivrins said flatly.
That might take awhile. It might involve extreme physical exertion. It might even involve, well, vomit. Which is why the drill is affectionately called “the trash-can drill.” Let your mind wander.
Stivrins, who’s hitting a blistering .412 on the season, revels in such intense competition.
“I think everyone who comes here knows that’s the standard we set,” she said. “That’s part of being a Nebraska volleyball player. If you’re not cut out for it, you don’t even bother coming on a visit.”
Make no mistake, Stanford (33-1) will put ample stress on Nebraska (29-6) as the Huskers gun for back-to-back national championships and three in a four-year span. Stivrins used “polished” to describe the Cardinal. The Cardinal are polished because, as is the case with the Huskers, they recruit the elite of the elite. We’re talking about a Pac-12 program that’s reached the Final Four 10 times since 2001, winning national titles in 2001, 2004 and 2016.
Nebraska assistant coach Jaylen Reyes, who’s in charge of the defensive game plan, said foremost on his mind are 6-foot-6 hitters Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris. Plummer, named Friday as AVCA National Player of the Year for the second straight season, hits a heavy ball but also changes speeds well and uses angles effectively. Fitzmorris is a free spirit who seems to ease tension — that is, when she’s not hammering kills.
Meanwhile, middle blocker Tami Alade, a 6-2 senior, jumps out of the gym. The Cardinal are the top blocking team in the nation.
But Nebraska gears its training for big, physical opponents because that’s what it often faces in the Big Ten. Against Stanford, NU will need to be balanced on offense and pressure the Cardinal with its serve, block and defense.
“Get those guys uncomfortable,” Cook said.
Ah, yes, discomfort. That word again. Most elite athletes embrace discomfort. That’s largely what training is about. Cook’s eyes light up when he tells you his 2018 team likes to practice and train.
“I think they love the way we train,” he said. “It’s hard, it’s intense. They have to climb a mountain every day in practice. It’s fun. You get challenged and pushed to be better every day.
“There are days they’re crying and frustrated. We have to manage them after practice. But I think all of us want to be pushed each day to be the best we can be.”
If it involves some vomit, so be it. Nebraska has become a program that expects to win all the marbles. Achieving such a level never comes easily.