Dec. 10, 2009

By John Fey
Special to

OMAHA, Neb. –
The NCAA Division I regional volleyball tournament here has a menu fully flavored with four Big 12 teams. That has fans salivating over the matchups.
Second-ranked Texas opens Friday’s doubleheader against Texas A&M at 5:30 (EST), followed by No. 7 Nebraska vs. No. 5 Iowa State. One sure thing about the matchups: These Big 12 teams have faced each other twice during the regular season and the coaches won’t have to spend much time scouting their opponents.
If any team has an edge in fan support, it’s Nebraska. Husker fans from Lincoln are just an hour or so from Qwest Center Omaha, and a sellout is likely.
The reward for the team that comes out on top after Saturday’s 9 p.m. (EST) final: A trip to next weekend’s Final Four at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
The Huskers (25-6) advanced with back-to-back sweeps at last weekend’s regional at a packed NU Coliseum.
“There’s no place like the Coliseum, and there’s no place like the Qwest – and it’s all because of our fans,” Husker senior Kori Cooper told the Omaha World-Herald after last Saturday’s win over Northern Iowa. “They are the ones that make these places special, and we’re looking forward to getting to play in front of them some more.”
Iowa State (27-4) and the Huskers will be butting heads for the third time. The teams split their first two matches.
“I feel good about this weekend,” ISU coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said after last Saturday’s home sweep over Wichita State. “We’ve never come into an NCAA tournament with a seed, never hosted an (NCAA) tournament. It’s a different place for us.”
ISU might be the higher-seeded team (7 to NU’s 10), but the Cyclones will be facing a team that is making its 16th consecutive appearance in the third round of the NCAA tournament. No other team can come close to matching that streak.
The Huskers struggled early in the season but appear to be playing their best volleyball heading into the weekend. They’ve held their past six opponents to a combined .096 hitting percentage.
In the other regional semifinal, Texas (26-1), the No. 2 seed, would be wise not to overlook red-hot Texas A&M. The Aggies (20-10) shocked 15th-seeded LSU in five games on the road and come to Omaha riding a six-match winning streak.
“Well, we’re really excited,” A&M coach Laurie Corbelli said after beating LSU. “We are one step closer to achieving our goal.”
The Aggies will rely on senior right-side hitter Jennifer Banse, who this week was named to’s “Top Performer” list. Banse recorded 20 kills in the upset over LSU.
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott realizes that A&M is coming in with a full head of steam.
“It is obviously a great rivalry that we have always had with Texas A&M,” he said. “I think that it is going to be fun to play them in Omaha and see which team Nebraska fans are going to root for.
“I think that A&M is doing some great things now, and we have to go in there prepared.”
Texas is returning to the court where the Longhorns were upended by Stanford in the Final Four semifinals. That season-ending loss was in the back of the players’ minds heading into 2009.
“It is a motivator – completely a motivator,” Elliott said. “I think that it is great that we are able to go back there to that same arena with that thought of losing to Stanford and be motivated to push through this time and come out with a W.”
Nebraska, meanwhile, hopes to remind the other three teams that it’s one of the premiere programs in the country, despite the bumps it hit on the way to the Sweet 16. The Huskers enter the weekend after sweeping their past nine opponents.
“I think greatness comes out of adversity,” Husker redshirt sophomore Jordan Wilberger said. “I don't think a team is good unless it's had to fight through hard times.”
Clearly, the other three teams are aware that Nebraska has gathered momentum and will have a clear home-crowd advantage at Qwest Center Omaha. The Longhorns don’t expect any love from Nebraskans, especially after Texas’ 13-12 win in last Saturday’s Big 12 football championship game.
“We know it is going to be us against the whole arena,” Elliott said. “We just have to keep together, have faith in each other, and just go out there and battle. This is what we play for.”