Nebraska's volleyball team fueled by heartbreaking end to 2011
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska's volleyball players don't need to be reminded about the heartbreaking end to last season.
Coach John Cook is making sure they don't forget anyway.
Always looking for a new way to motivate his team, Cook bought black wristbands stamped with the words "Unfinished Business." He wants everyone in the program to wear the wristbands until mid-December, when he hopes the Huskers will be playing for the national title.
That's not to say last year was a total disaster.
The Cornhuskers became the first team not named Penn State to win the Big Ten championship since 2002, and they did it in their first year in the conference.
But a five-set loss to Kansas State in Lincoln in the second round of the NCAA tournament marked the earliest finish for a Nebraska season since 1993.
"Things didn't go our way, but that doesn't mean we can't change them," outside hitter Hannah Werth said. "That drives us every single day. When we come to practice, we have a purpose, a reason for working hard, and that's to not feel like we did on that last point against Kansas State last year."
The Huskers return first-team All-America outside hitter Gina Mancuso and four other players with significant starting experience from the team that finished 25-5 and ranked No. 12 in the coaches' poll.
They open at home Aug. 24 against Saint Louis and play defending national champion UCLA the next night.
Cook said he had no idea where Nebraska would be ranked in the preseason poll that comes out Monday.
"The only thing that's on my desk is where we finished last year, which is 12th in the country," he said. "That has been a focal point for us. Why did we end up in 12th? We're going to start there and work our way up."
Mancuso and Werth are the best of the outside hitters, and the Huskers have four middle blockers competing for two starting spots. Lauren Cook returns at setter, and freshman Alexa Strange could join her on the floor if the Huskers want to switch to a two-setter system.
The Huskers will be challenged in the Big Ten. Illinois returns five starters from the team that won 32 matches and reached the program's first NCAA title match. Penn State, which tied with Illinois and Purdue for second place, will be back with more experience and what Cook said would be the most talented roster in the Big Ten.
"I think we have a chance to be a special team," Cook said. "We learned some great lessons on what has to happen for us to be great. I thought at times last year we were the best team in the country. We also learned some lessons on how fragile that is."
The Huskers won 18 of their first 19 matches and started 11-0 in the Big Ten.
But on Oct. 30, hours after returning to Lincoln following a loss at Penn State, Lauren Cook was jailed for leaving the scene of an accident after she struck a motorcyclist stopped on the side of the road. He suffered a broken leg.
The coach's daughter was suspended two matches and later accepted into a pretrial diversion program.
In addition to the off-court distraction, Werth hinted the Huskers had lapses in communication, energy and focus.
Defensive specialist Paige Hubl said the team is trying to strengthen its "love and trust."
"We work together, we do activities together," Hubl said. "It's not forced, it's not fake. It's genuine. We actually enjoy each other's company. So I think that's a bonus and a plus for the season."