LINCOLN — Coming to Lincoln for this weekend's NCAA volleyball regional will not be a wholly unfamiliar experience for San Diego.
The Toreros have played in front of big opposing crowds, and USD knows the way to the Midwest after playing at Iowa State's tournament in September.
What's more, San Diego coach Jennifer Petrie will see a familiar face down the sideline in the Toreros' bid for their first regional final berth. Petrie will bring San Diego (26-3) into the Devaney Center on Friday to face Nebraska (25-6), led by her old club coach, John Cook.
Petrie trained as an outside hitter under Cook in the 1980s with the San Diego Volleyball Club, where she remembers the current Husker coach as a rigorous tactician who promoted a constant spirit of competition.
“I think he's pretty similar now to what he was then,” said Petrie, who this week was named Pacific South Region coach of the year by the AVCA. “Even then it was very regimented. It was very disciplined. He worked us hard. We got ranked in practice every day.”
For Cook, the San Diego club scene was the gateway to his college coaching career. He was one of the founders of the SDVC, and with the abundance of talent in the San Diego area, the club quickly became one of the best in the country.
San Diego Volleyball Club was so good, former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit scheduled a match between the Huskers and Cook's club when NU went to San Diego for spring break in the mid-1980s.
“We were good,” Cook said. “We probably had 10 Division I recruits on that team.”
The Huskers won that scrimmage, and the connection was made. Cook earned his first collegiate job when he became Pettit's assistant at Nebraska in 1988.
Cook also coached the Toreros' top assistant, Brent Hilliard, on the U.S. men's national team that won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics.
Led by Cook's former players, San Diego comes to Lincoln on a roll, winner of 17 straight matches. The Toreros swept UC Santa Barbara and Arizona last weekend to advance to the Sweet 16 and figure to challenge the Huskers with an unusual 5-2 system that has senior Rachel Alvey setting the team from the front row and junior Jianna Bonomi coming in to run the offense from the back row.
The attack, which Cook said is somewhat similar to those run by Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana, lets San Diego showcase the talent of its middles, led by senior Chloe Ferrari, who leads the team with 3.12 kills per set. Ferrari rebounded from a season-ending knee injury last season to be named the West Coast Conference player of the year.
“I think that time off fuels the fire for some of those athletes,” Petrie said. “She's determined and confident this year, taking the lead.”
While Ferrari received the conference's biggest accolade, San Diego's offense could scarcely be more balanced. The Toreros' five starting attackers all have taken between 283 and 325 swings this year, and all average at least 2.75 kills per set.
It's been a dream season so far for San Diego, which opened by beating Hawaii on the Rainbow Wahine's home court and pushing No. 1 Texas to five games in a close loss. San Diego also knocked off tournament qualifiers Iowa State and Illinois before beating then-No. 1 Southern California on Sept. 13.
Now, the Toreros are one win away from uncharted levels of success.
“They were real confidence-boosters early on,” Petrie said. “I think our first three weekends gave us a platform to build on the rest of the year. We had some big wins against big teams. After those matches, our team felt like we could compete with anybody.”
Ľ NOTES: Cook said Nebraska freshman setter Kelly Hunter had surgery to repair a broken foot suffered in practice and will be on crutches for six weeks. Hunter, a Papillion-LaVista South graduate, played in 16 matches this season as a reserve.
Lincoln Regional capsules
Conference: Big Ten
AVCA rank and NCAA seed: No. 9 and No. 8
NCAA appearances: 32nd
Coach: John Cook (14th season)
Big hitters: Kelsey Robinson (4.38 kills per set), Kadie Rolfzen (3.46 kps), Amber Rolfzen (2.19 kps)
Top blockers: Cecilia Hall (1.35 blocks per set), Meghan Haggerty (1.07 bps)
Top diggers: Justine Wong-Orantes (3.41 digs per set), Robinson (3.32 dps)
The setter: Mary Pollmiller (10.70 assists per set)
Honor roll: Robinson, the Big Ten player of the year, headlines a group of five Huskers who earned AVCA All-North Region honors this week. She was joined on the 14-player first team by outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen — the region's freshman of the year — Pollmiller and Haggerty. Hall also was named honorable mention all-region.
Fast facts: Nebraska dominated the net in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, outblocking Fairfield and Oregon by a combined 24-4. The Huskers were third in the Big Ten during the regular season, averaging 2.88 blocks per set.
San Diego (26-3)
Conference: West Coast Conference
AVCA rank and NCAA seed: No. 8 and No. 9
NCAA appearances: 17th
Coach: Jennifer Petrie (12th season)
Big hitters: Chloe Ferrari (3.12 kps), Alaysia Brown (2.97 kps), Sandra Lozic (2.75 kps), Taylor Hollins (2.75 kps)
Top blockers: Ferrari (0.94 bps), Katie Hoekman (0.81 bps)
Leading diggers: C'era Oliveira (4.75 dps), Hollins (2.39 dps)
The setters: Jianna Bonomi (7.38), Rachel Alvey (5.21)
Honor roll: Ferrari bounced back from a season-ending knee injury last year to be named the WCC player of the year in 2013. She was joined on the All-WCC first team by Brown, a junior opposite hitter, and senior middle Hoekman. Petrie also was named the WCC's coach of the year for the fourth time.
Fast facts: The Toreros had been frustrated by tough tournament draws that sent them to Los Angeles for first- and second-round play the past three seasons, but made the most of being a host site this year. San Diego brings a 17-match winning streak to Lincoln.
Conference: Big 12
AVCA Rank and NCAA seed: No. 1 and No. 1
NCAA appearances: 30th
Coach: Jerritt Elliott (13th season)
Big hitters: Haley Eckerman (4.18 kps), Bailey Webster (3.46 kps)
Top blockers: Khat Bell (1.31 bps), Molly McCage (1.27 bps)
Leading diggers: Sarah Palmer (3.65 dps), Eckerman (2.43 dps)
The setter: Hannah Allison (8.06 aps)
Honor roll: Texas dominated the AVCA's All-Southwest Regional honors with six players on the first team. Eckerman, Webster, McCage, Bell, Allison and Chiaka Ogbogu made it a sweep for the Longhorns' offensive starters with Ogbogu being named the region's freshman of the year. Eckerman was named the Big 12 player of the year for the second straight season.
Fast facts: If Texas advances to Saturday's regional final, the Longhorns are guaranteed a rematch from a five-gamer earlier in the season. Nebraska fell to the Longhorns in five sets in Austin on Sept. 22, and Texas went the distance to beat San Diego on Aug. 31 in a tournament at Hawaii.
Conference: Patriot League
AVCA rank and NCAA seed: Unranked and unseeded
NCAA appearances: 13th
Coach: Barry Goldberg (25th season)
Big hitters: Kristyna Lindovska (3.58 kps), Julie Crum (3.10 kps)
Top blockers: Morgan Hendrix (1.10 bps), Kelly McCaddin (1.01 bps)
Leading diggers: Megan Rosburg (3.55 dps), Crum (3.08 dps)
The setter: Monika Smidova (10.87 aps)
Honor roll: Lindovska, one of four players on the Eagles' roster from eastern Europe, was named to the AVCA All-East Region team as well as to the first-team All-Patriot League squad. Goldberg was named the East Region coach of the year for the first time in his 25-year career.
Fast facts: The Eagles made history last weekend in Durham, N.C., when they swept Georgia and host Duke to win the program's first NCAA tournament matches. American won with a tenacious floor defense that held the Bulldogs to .054 attacking and the Blue Devils to .110.