LINCOLN — The stress is gone for Nebraska volleyball players, coaches and fans. They will finally get their season — it will just be five months later and look much different.
The NCAA announced Tuesday that fall 2020 championships will be played in spring 2021. For volleyball, that means a season start date of Jan. 22 with a championship — possibly in Omaha — April 23 and 25. The postseason tournament will also shrink from 64 teams to 48.
Nebraska will play just conference opponents, but the Big Ten has yet to finalize the schedule. Coach John Cook said Friday he doesn’t know if volleyball scheduling has been discussed by Big Ten officials, who had been prioritizing football. However, league volleyball coaches, including Cook, have lobbied for a 10- or 11-week regular season with two matches per week.
“That would be very close to a full season, minus a few weeks and a few matches,” Cook said. “But we feel that level of competition will prepare you for the NCAA tournament and being able to compete with anybody, any other conference or team in the country.”
Cook said on his podcast released Friday by the Husker Sports Network that the Huskers could travel to Minnesota and play the Gophers twice over a weekend. The same would be done for a Big Ten opponent coming to Lincoln.
Cook said he’s not certain yet, but it’s his impression that Omaha is “good to go” with hosting the NCAA tournament’s final four in April. He said he’s been checking, and the NCAA has indicated it would like to have it in Omaha.
The smaller tournament will put power-conference schools at an advantage over mid-majors, Cook said, but he added that Nebraska won’t have time to “mess around” in its conference-only season.
Unless Cook gets his way with a permanent move to spring, Big Ten teams will be playing seasons in the spring and fall of 2021. That doesn’t worry Cook.
“They’re used to going all year round,” he said. “For the sport of volleyball, unlike football, that’s not an issue, and I’m not worried about it at all.”
With the exception of the Pac-12, the other power conferences are putting together a limited volleyball schedule this fall.
Cook has been a longtime proponent of the spring volleyball season because it allows freshmen to develop for more than a few weeks before jumping into an aggressive nonconference schedule. It also allows volleyball championships to get away from a busy time in December with holidays and the culmination of the NCAA football season.
Cook and the players will gradually ramp up practices to get ready for the season. At a time of year when NU would have typically played 10 matches already, the team is instead practicing eight hours per week, with two hours in the gym and the other hours coming in workouts. In mid-October, Cook will pick up the pace and move to 20 hours per week, the same amount the team would be practicing in a normal season.
Cook said his players reacted immediately to the announcement of a plan for the season.
“I saw a change in the weight room just with their demeanor, their attitude, their energy, their excitement to be there,” he said.
Many questions remain unanswered, even for Cook and the players. Testing has not been finalized for the team, Cook said. He hopes his team can share the process with the football program once regular testing starts, and he expects other Big Ten teams to do something similar.
The team will be in its own bubble, distancing from others amid the pandemic. Players’ temperatures are monitored, and they take surveys about their health.
The NCAA agreed to give all fall sports athletes, including seniors, an extra year of eligibility regardless of whether they play in the fall or spring. That blanket waiver is possible because of an NCAA Board of Governors decision related to the pandemic.
“I’m just kind of waiting to see how this all shakes out and how we go,” Cook said. “And then what our seniors want to do and then we go from there.
“I have a feeling in a year from now you’re going to see a lot of people on the (transfer) portal.”
The NCAA announced last week that midyear enrollees — such as players who graduate from high school a semester early to join a college team — will not be able to play in the upcoming spring season.
“That just took a lot of tough meetings out of the equation,” Cook said.
Nebraska will have a few players join the roster in January, but they won’t be able to play. Cook said that’s not a bad thing, as the players will have time to learn the system.