To most, the Nebraska Cornhuskers volleyball players look about the same as a decade ago, which is to say big and powerful, skilled and savvy.
For Lincoln, Nebraska native Maggie Anderson, reserve setter for the Final Four-bound, 30-2 Kansas University volleyball squad, her view of them has changed. They have gone from idols to rivals.
“Since I was a little girl growing up with Nebraska volleyball, watching those girls, I didn’t ever think of them as college students and college athletes, I always looked at them as pro athletes because I was so much smaller than them,” Anderson said. “Growing up in a state where it’s the main female sport made me want to excel in it.”
Fourth-seeded Nebraska’s roster features 11 6-footers, seven checking in at 6-foot-3 inches or taller. No. 9 seed KU lists seven 6-footers and only Kelsie Payne is 6-3.
Nebraska never looks bigger than when viewed through the prism of the series history between the former conference foes. The Jayhawks will try to 86 the series curse Nebraska holds over them. The Huskers are 86-0-1. Yet, none of the current players are part of that and this is the best KU team ever.
Mix in the fact that roughly 15,000 of the 17,000 spectators at CenturyLink Center in Nebraska will be rooting for the Cornhuskers and it’s easy to understand why Kansas is considered the underdog. It has a monumental task in front of it. Even so, it can’t be any tougher than coming back from 13-9 down against No. 1 seed USC to win the fifth set, 15-13, and doing it with the nation’s top player, Samantha Bricio, in the front row for all six points.
“We’re a team that the crowd won’t affect us,” Anderson said. “It’s not their home court. This is supposed to be a neutral site and we’re just jacked to play in front of fans that just like to watch the sport.”
Her choice of words, saying “supposed” to be, was not accidental.
“I’m going to stick with that word, yes,” she said with a smile. “We’re not going to get too comfortable with this site, but we also know that they’re not on their home court.”
A late bloomer who is one of KU’s most reliable servers, Anderson attended KU’s volleyball camp during the summer of 2011, heading into her senior year.
“I just fell in love with literally everything you could fall in love with in the sport of volleyball, in the staff, in the school,” she said. “I expressed right then and there I wanted to come here. Unfortunately, there were no spots.”
So she committed to Div. II powerhouse Nebraska-Kearney. An unexpected roster spot for a setter opened and asked of the Kearney coach and was granted permission to pursue the opportunity.
“It was April 8 when Coach B (head coach Ray Bechard) called me and said, ‘You are on the roster,’ ” said Anderson, lauded by coaches and teammates alike for being a great teammate.
The big-time Cornhuskers fan became a Jayhawk and her loyalties changed overnight.
“I’ve been waiting to play the Huskers for four years now,” Anderson said. “Once I came here in the summer of 2012, it made it hard for me to follow the Huskers. This past week, watching the tournament, watching the film, has kind of been the first time I’ve seen this team play together for the Huskers.”
As part of his pep talk before the USC match, Bechard reminded the team of its two goals heading into the season: 1. Win the Big 12; 2. Reach the Elite Eight. He said that since they already had reached the second goal, the only way to make up for not meeting the first would be to surpass the second, which of course the Jayhawks did.
No. 3 seed Texas, which faces second-seeded Minnesota in the other national semifinal, won the Big 12 title. KU’s only two losses came to the Longhorns, the second in a match the Jayhawks were on the brink of winning in four sets, but were done in by inconsistent serving.
“We really wanted that match,” Anderson said. “Not winning the Big 12 was really heart-wrenching. That was really sad to us.”
Short-term pain that just might have led to a state of euphoria in San Diego. Coming so close to slaying Texas built the Jayhawks’ confidence.
“There was kind of a feeling after that match like, all right, there is more to come,” Anderson said. “We have a lot more to look forward to. Someone could possibly say that loss is the experience we needed to beat USC.”
Well said, Maggie.