LINCOLN — The volleyball players lounge is a room of total comfort.
A U-shaped, cream couch surrounds a circular wooden table in the middle of the room. A large TV sits in front of a U-shaped whiteboard in the low-lit, air-conditioned space. Throw blankets are scattered on the floor and over the couch.
Coach John Cook wants to get his team as far away from this room as possible. Wants them napping on mats and sleeping on overnight trains, sweating in the Asian heat against some of the best teams in the world.
Which is why Cook and the Huskers are headed west Saturday for a 17-day trip to Japan and China. This is the fifth trip of its kind for the program and the first since 2014.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’re nervous for,” junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “We’ve heard a few horror stories from a few girls who have gone on previous trips. But they said it just brings everyone closer, so I’m excited for that.”
The men’s and women’s basketball teams are headed to Italy later this summer. But, Cook said, those tend to be more like vacations. This is business.
“We tend to approach this as, we want these guys to go through an experience that is going to stress them, get them uncomfortable,” Cook said. “And they’re gonna have to learn to grind a little bit and be away from home and be out of their comfort zone for 17 days.”
It will start Saturday with a flight to Osaka, Japan. In Kobe on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nebraska will play two-time defending league champion Hisamitsu Springs. Then Nebraska will train with the Toray Arrows — runner-up in the same league — on June 20 and scrimmage against them June 21.
In Shanghai on June 24 and 25, Nebraska faces Shanghai Bright Ubest, one of the top teams in the Chinese Volleyball League. Former Husker Jordan Larson signed to play with that team recently.
NU will take an overnight train to Tianjin for a June 28 match against Tianjin Bohai Bank, which finished second in the Chinese Volleyball League. The final match is June 29 against defending league champion Beijing Baic Motor.
The reason these top-level teams are willing to host Nebraska, Cook said, is because they train year-round. These teams are between tournaments and happy to play rather than practice for a day.
And they take these matches seriously.
Nebraska didn’t win one in 2000 or 2006 — two Husker teams that ended up winning the national title that year. And when Nebraska finally knocked off a team in 2010 in a five-set match, the Chinese team immediately started practicing as Nebraska left the gym.
“Our record will not be great, but we are gonna learn how to play some great volleyball and play against teams who play great volleyball,” Cook said.
Nebraska could have taken this trip last year but chose not to so freshmen could join. This is the first year incoming true freshmen are allowed to travel overseas for matches.
Cook brings in the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, including Madi Kubik, an outside hitter from Des Moines, and Kenzie Knuckles, a libero from Yorktown, Indiana. Both have impressed Cook since arriving on campus.
Nebraska doesn’t have a senior on the team. This might be Cook’s youngest squad ever, he said. And he’s itching to find out if there’s fight in the group.
“If a dog’s gonna bite, it’s gonna bite as a pup,” Cook said. “If these guys are gonna be players, they’re gonna show us early in their career that they can be players.”
Cook hasn’t made it official, but he’s thrust a good chunk of the captain responsibilities onto Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames. Both said they don’t think this team will be hard to lead. Everyone knows their spots; everyone works hard.
They’ll learn if that’s true overseas this month.
“You just have to go into it with a mindset that you know anything can happen,” Hames said. “I feel like we’ve trained hard, and we’ve been preparing for it, so I feel like going into it we know we’re playing the top teams, but I don’t think we’re nervous or scared about it. I think we’re just going in ready to fight.”