Nebraska volleyball team has new faces, same expectations

              FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2015, file photo, Nebraska coach John Cook calls a play during the team's NCAA women's volleyball tournament semifinal against Kansas, in Omaha, Neb. The defending national champion Nebraska volleyball team has the same high expectations even though eight of its 15 players are newcomers. The second-ranked Cornhuskers have won two of the last three national titles and haven’t missed the final four since 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Nebraska comes into the volleyball season with eight newcomers on its 15-woman roster, and it would be easy for coach John Cook to look at this as a rebuilding year. Not happening.

“This year we have a pretty good out in that over half our team is new, so those guys have no idea what it is to win a national championship,” Cook said. “But we have a core that is returning, so I have to be patient. I’m encouraged. Our goals never change.”

The second-ranked Cornhuskers have won two of the last three national championships and haven’t missed the final four since 2014.

Volleyball is a big deal across the state of 1.8 million, and excellence has long been the standard. Nebraska has sold out an NCAA-record 234 consecutive matches and drew 8,000 fans last weekend for its annual intrasquad scrimmage — yes, a scrimmage.

Creighton, in Omaha, is No. 13 in the preseason, was ranked ahead of Nebraska for three weeks last September and has made six straight NCAA Tournaments. Several small colleges are among the best in the nation in their divisions.

The Huskers finished last season 32-4 and are on a 19-match winning streak. They’re led by senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, named the most outstanding player of the NCAA Championships in 2015 and 2017, and senior libero Kenzie Maloney. The other returning starter is sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins.

The recruiting class of five freshmen is led by Nicklin Hames of Knoxville, Tennessee, the top-rated setter and No. 4 player overall, according to The top transfer is sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun, a 2017 All-Big 12 pick for Texas.

“I think there are going to be some new stars that emerge, and it’s going to be wild because they’re young,” Cook said. “It’s going to be fun, exciting, edge-of-your-seat, hang on. We have a team that’s going to compete really hard and our fans are going to love it.”

The Huskers open Friday night at home against Florida in a rematch of teams that played for the 2017 national title.

The NCAA Tournament begins Nov. 29 on campus sites, with the semifinals and final Dec. 13-15 at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

Other teams to watch:

Stanford (30-4, national semifinalist)

The Cardinal are the preseason No. 1 team in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll for the first time since 2002. Among their six returnees is 2017 national player of the year Kathryn Plummer, a 6-foot-6 junior who averaged 4.7 kills and 5.4 points per set to lead the Pac-12. She had at least 20 kills in 11 matches.

Texas (27-3)

The No. 3 Longhorns have been in the top 10 in 178 of 182 weeks and are the only program to make regional finals each of the last 12 years. Outside hitter Micaya White is preseason Big 12 player of the year after finishing her sophomore season with 3.4 kills per set and a team-leading 21 service aces.

Minnesota (28-6)

The Gophers, who made the national semifinals in 2015-16, are in bounce-back mode after losing in the regional semifinals. They come in ranked No. 4 and return five starters, including 2017 All-Americans Samantha Seliger-Swenson, Alexis Hart and Stephanie Samedy.

Florida (30-2, national runner-up)

The No. 7 Gators lost key pieces from the team that made the national championship match for the first time since 2003. They bring back a dominant middle blocker in the 6-8 Rachael Kramer and an experienced setter in Allie Monserez. The Gators have the No. 2-ranked recruiting class plus North Carolina transfer Holly Carlton.

BYU (30-3)

The No. 8 Cougars have made it to the regional semifinals six straight years and could be ready to break through. Roni Jones-Perry is the nation’s leading returner in kills (569), Kennedy Eschenberg was West Coast Conference freshman of the year and Mary Lake the WCC defender of the year.