"There is definitely a sense of urgency and an edge based on how last season ended," Nebraska Coach John Cook said."From a coaches' perspective, it is obvious that this team will be as motivated as any team in the country."
Not only are the Huskers motivated, but also return a wealth of talent from a team that went 30-2 and had a 27-match winning streak. Six starters return from the defending Big 12 champions, including All-Americans Melissa Elmer, Sarah Pavan and Jennifer Saleaumua. NU also welcomes a top-five recruiting class that could prominently figure into what system the Huskers look to establish this fall.
"We have a great foundation with the returning players, but we are replacing almost half of our team from last year with five new players," Cook said. "The dynamics of the team are going to change with a new assistant coach (Lee Maes) and five new players. It will take part of the season to find out what roles different players will fill. It will be an interesting journey as all of this develops."
After leading the nation in blocking for the fourth time in five years in 2004, the strength of the Husker lineup is a middle blocking corps that returns two-time All-American Melissa Elmer and former U.S. National Team player Tracy Stalls.
One of two seniors on the Husker roster, Elmer led the nation in blocks (1.89 blocks per game) and became only the second player in school history to record 200 blocks in a season. The 6-foot-2 senior averaged 2.91 kills per game and led the Huskers in hitting percentage (.345). During the summer, Elmer trained with the U.S. National Team, competing at the Montreux Volley Masters Tournament in Switzerland. Cook said the experience she gained with the national team will pay off this fall.
"Melissa has gained a great deal of confidence from her experience with the USA program and the success she enjoyed at that level," Cook said. "She got to see a lot of bigger, faster athletes and teams that play much faster than she's used to in college. That exposure will give her a good perspective on college volleyball and will make her a better player."
Stalls quietly put together one of the best freshman campaigns in school history in 2004. She ranked third in the Big 12 and 11th nationally in blocking with 1.65 blocks per game, including 12 matches with seven or more blocks. Stalls reached double figures in kills six times, including a season-high 14 against Iowa State. She underwent off-season knee surgery, but should be at close to 100 percent for the start of the season. Cook said that Stalls' worth to the team belies her statistics.
"Tracy brings a level of experience for our team that you can't coach," Cook said. "She has great instincts and such experience that as soon as she gets healthy and is on the court, she raises the level of our team."
Smith appeared in eight matches in a limited role last season, but started two of NU's final three spring matches after Stalls' surgery. A two-time all-state performer at Sidney High School, she had five kills and four blocks against Minnesota and was considered the Huskers' most improved player at the end of spring drills.
Gates brings impressive credentials into the Husker program. A Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selection, she was a first-team Super-State pick after leading Columbus High School to a Class A runner-up finish in 2004. As a senior, she totaled 476 kills and led Class A with a .451 hitting percentage.
After one of the most dominant freshman campaigns in school history, Sarah Pavan will once again anchor Nebraska's potent attack this fall. The 6-foot-5 Pavan earned AVCA first-team All-America honors and was the AVCA National Freshman of the Year after pacing NU with 4.54 kills per game. She had seven 20-kill efforts, including a career-high 35 in the regional final against USC. After a summer of extensive weight training, Pavan continues to expand her arsenal and will contend for national honors this fall.
"Sarah had a great freshman year, but she is never satisfied with what she has done and that is what makes her such a special player," Cook said. "We know she is a great attacker, and where she can make the next step is when she can score points with her attack, her block and her serve. She has a chance to be one of the best in the country in scoring points in all three areas."
The outside hitter position shapes up to be one of the deepest positions on the Husker roster. NU has three players with starting experience in Jennifer Saleaumua, Christina Houghtelling, and Dani Mancuso, while NU also welcomes one of the nation's top recruits in freshman Jordan Larson.
One luxury that Cook has is the return of Saleaumua. A three-time All-Big 12 selection at outside hitter, she was second on the team in both kills (3.09) and digs (3.74) per game last season and is on track to become only the second player in school history to record 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs. A superb all-around player, Saleaumua shared Big 12 Defensive Player-of-the-Year honors in 2004, and trained at both outside hitter and libero with USA Volleyball in the summer. No matter what role she fills on the court, Saleaumua will play a vital role in the Huskers' success this fall.
"I think Jennifer will be a mutli-role player for us," Cook said. "She could be used as a hitter or at libero. That is how USA Volleyball used her over the summer and she responded well and was one of the better performing players.
"Jennifer has accomplished nearly everything in her career and has two things left to do, win a national championship and graduate. Those are two big goals for her, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen."
Houghtelling is another player with experience in the USA Volleyball program, as she joined Elmer on the U.S. Volleyball A-2 team in Switzerland. Houghtelling, who moved to outside hitter prior to last season, enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign in 2004, averaging 2.90 kills and 2.34 digs per game in 30 matches. Houghtelling's best match came at Missouri, when she had a career-high 17 kills on .739 hitting. She also ranked among the Big 12 leaders with 0.34 service aces per game.
"Christina finally has a year where she was able to train in the spring and summer and is beginning to scratch the surface of how good she can be," Cook said. "Her selection to play with Team USA opened her eyes, and she benefitted from the experience even more than Melissa (Elmer) and Jennifer (Saleaumua).
While Houghtelling started a majority of the matches on the outside, Dani Mancuso split time at the position last season. The 6-foot-2 junior from Omaha averaged 2.77 kills and 2.27 digs per game in 24 matches. Mancuso, who has started at times in each of the last two seasons, showed the ability to single-handedly take over matches, including a career-high 22 kills in a crucial road win at Kansas State. This season, Mancuso could also fill a variety of needs for the Huskers. She is currently training at both outside hitter positions, as she will likely backup Pavan on the right side. Mancuso also saw time at libero during the spring.
"Dani has shown over the last two years that she can play at an all-conference level," Cook said. "She has gotten stronger and has matured mentally, and we are looking for her to become a more consistent player for us. If she does that, she is going to have a chance for a lot of playing time this season."
Larson enters the Husker program with high expectations following a steller high school and club career. A Fab 50 recruit, Larson was a three-time Super State selection, finishing her career with a state record 561 services aces. As a senior, she tallied 501 kills on .490 hitting to lead Logan View to the state semifinals. In addition, she was a two-year member of the U.S. Junior National Team, earning MVP honors at 2004 NORCECA Continental Junior Championships.
"Jordan has ability as an attacker to score points with her block and serve, but I think her best skills are her passing and ability to play defense," Cook said. "There are very few players in the country that have skills in those areas like she has."
One of the most anticipated battles in fall camp will be at setter. After going with a 5-1 offense last season, Cook will return to a 6-2 offensive this fall, and has three talented setters to choose from, including returning starter Dani Busboom and newcomers Maggie Griffin and Rachel Holloway.
The veteran of the trio, Busboom played in a 6-2 offense as a freshman before taking over the full-time setting duties last fall. Busboom earned AVCA All-Midwest Region honors in 2004, ranking third in the Big 12 with 13.10 assists per game. Her average was the highest by a setter in seven seasons, while helping NU rank in the top-20 nationally in both hitting percentage and kills per game. Cook said that it will be important for Busboom to take advantage of a talented supporting cast around her.
"She has a bunch of great hitters around her, and we are looking for Dani to open up our offense a little bit and make us harder to defend," Cook said. "If she can consistently do that, it will raise the level of our entire team."
Nebraska was fortunate to add a second setter with starting experience this summer with the addition of Michigan State transfer Maggie Griffin. Last season, the St. Charles, Ill., native earned Big Ten All-Freshman honors, averaging 12.98 assists and 2.18 digs per game. In addition to her college experience, she also guided her club team to two Junior Olympic national titles. Griffin's experience at MSU will help her quickly adjust to the Big 12.
"Maggie is a very skilled setter who has tremendous instincts," Cook said. "She is not a typical newcomer, as she gained a lot of experience playing in the Big Ten last year, and she gives us a number of options to work with at the setter position."
Holloway has already built an extensive resume as she begins her club career. Originally signed for the 2006 season, Holloway graduated a year early to begin her college career this fall. She was a two-time first-team All-Colorado selection and Gatorade State Player of the Year in 2004. A two-year captain of the U.S. Youth National Team, she led the team to a fourth-place finish at the Under-18 World Championships in China earlier this summer.
"We believe that Rachel is the top setter recruit in this class," Cook said. "She has great instincts, and was trained by her club coach, Jim Miret, to do a lot of things that you only see international setters do. She is a highly skilled all-around player, and has an opportunity to come in and play as a freshman."
The only position guaranteed a new starter is libero, where either Saleaumua or freshman Rachel Schwartz will roam the position.
Schwartz comes to the Husker program from Lincoln East High School, where she was a Prepvolleyball.com All-American. In 2004, she ranked among the state leaders in both kills and digs en route to leading Lincoln East to a state playoff berth as a senior. While Schwartz played outside hitter in high school, Cook says that Schwartz's athleticism and competitive nature make her ideally suited for the libero spot.
"Rachel is a great athlete and has proven that she can compete in different environments," Cook said. "We are looking forward to having her at the libero position and think that she can be a great libero in our program."
The Huskers will be tested with one of the most demanding schedules in school history, as 19 of its matches will be against NCAA qualifiers from 2004.
"The climate of college volleyball has changed because the regionals are pre-determined, it is not as important what type of record you have," Cook said. "When we put together the schedule, we had only two weeks (before Big 12 play) and we wanted to schedule as tough as we could to be prepared for the start of conference matches.
"Our two goals for every year are to win the Big 12 and to win a national championship," Cook said. "It throws out a challenging schedule, but we have a team that will embrace that and improve from it, whether we win or lose. It will make us a better team and we'll know what we need to work on to prepare us for the Big 12."
Nebraska opens the 2005 campaign by competing in the AVCA/NACWAA College Volleyball Showcase at the Qwest Center in Omaha. The Huskers will face Hawaii, while Penn State and Stanford form the other half of the bracket, as the field includes four of the top five teams in the CSTV/AVCA preseason poll.
The docket does not get easier, as Nebraska hits the road for a three-game trip which includes matches with nationally ranked Ohio State and Minnesota. The Huskers then return home for the Players Challenge, a three-day tournament that features Penn State, along with long-time powers Pepperdine and Pacific.
"Our goal in the Players Challenge is to create a premier tournament in Nebraska," Cook said. "We have the fan support and the interest and now we are getting some teams that want to come in here and make it a special event. All three teams are top-20 programs with great history and tradition. It ought to be the premier tournament in the country."
Couple that non-conference schedule with a league slate that had seven teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament a year ago and you see why the 2005 schedule is the toughest in recent memory.