LINCOLN — John Cook walked into the CenturyLink Center on a December night in 2006 and knew he was witnessing a crowd unlike any before in college volleyball.
“It was like ‘Wow, this is historic. This is history to see that many people here for a volleyball match,’ ” the Nebraska coach said. “We were pretty awestruck.”
A crowd of 17,209 showed up that night and watched Nebraska defeat Stanford in four sets for the school’s third national championship. It was, at the time, the largest crowd in NCAA volleyball history.
The NCAA tournament will return to the CenturyLink Center this weekend for the fifth time, with the Huskers hoping to continue a postseason run of success in their home away from home starting with Friday’s matchup against No. 5 Washington in the regional semifinals.
“For a big arena, it’s a really nice arena to play volleyball in,” Cook said. “You can feel the crowd down there, and the visual is pretty good. They treat us really well there. The staff that works there, they treat us like rock stars. The bus gets to pull inside, and the people that work there treat us really well.”
Nebraska has made it to regional play all five years the CenturyLink Center has hosted NCAA tournament matches and holds a 5-2 record there in the postseason. The venue has been the scene of several of the program’s most memorable matches over the last decade.
The Huskers were the preseason No. 1 team in 2005 and opened the year by sweeping No. 4 Hawaii and No. 3 Stanford at the AVCA Showcase in the CenturyLink Center (then Qwest Center Omaha). The Huskers would return in December for the building’s first NCAA regional, sweeping UCLA and Florida on their way to the Final Four.
Two years after a record crowd watched the Huskers beat Stanford for the national title, the record was broken when NU nearly pulled what would have been one of the greatest upsets in NCAA volleyball history against unbeaten Penn State in the 2008 national semifinals.
The top-ranked Nittany Lions hadn’t even lost a set all year and quickly took the first two sets from NU in front of 17,430, most of whom were Husker fans. But the Huskers, behind future U.S. Olympian Jordan Larson, outside hitter Tara Mueller and opposite Lindsay Licht, rallied to win Games 3 and 4. NU led 10-8 in Game 5 before Penn State came back for a 15-11 win to preserve its perfect season. It turned out to be the only two games Penn State would lose all year.
Husker senior Gina Mancuso, who was a senior at Papillion-La Vista in 2008 and committed to join the Husker program the next year, remembered being in attendance for the match.
“In ’08 when Nebraska almost beat Penn State, it was the loudest I’ve ever heard in a volleyball match,” Mancuso said. “It was unbelievable.”
Said Cook: “I just remember (Penn State coach) Russ Rose’s comment afterward. He goes ‘My head hurts. I never want to play here again,’ because it was so loud.”
The Nittany Lions won their second of four straight national titles two nights later, sweeping Stanford in front of 14,299, the third-largest crowd in the sport’s history.
The Huskers’ most recent postseason appearance at the CenturyLink Center came in the 2009 Midwest Regional. NU swept Iowa State before losing in four games to eventual runner-up Texas.
Cook said Nebraska would treat the match like a road game, traveling to Omaha for a Thursday practice and staying overnight before Friday’s match with the Huskies.
But that will likely be the only unfamiliar part of the weekend for the Huskers, who scheduled an early-season match in Omaha against Notre Dame as a reminder of where the road may end up in December.
The Huskers swept the Irish on Aug. 26 and said afterward they expected to return to the CenturyLink Center later in the season.
“We already went up there once and played Notre Dame up there as a dress rehearsal, like ‘Here’s where we want to be in December,’ ” Cook said. “So, mentally, we’ve already planted that seed of where we want to be.”
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