UCLA match stirs Cooks' memories

A little volleyball talk for us Husker Volleyball fanatics.  Yep, that's Lauren Cook as a Bruin her freshman year. UCLA came to town and beat a pretty solid NU team that season (2009).

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UCLA match stirs Cooks' memories

By Jeff Sheldon

LINCOLN — The last time Nebraska and UCLA faced off on the volleyball court in 2009, Lauren Cook came back to the town she grew up in, looked over to her father on the opposing bench, and played one of the best matches of her college career.

Then, after leading her team to a thrilling win that snapped the 90-match home winning streak her father's program had spent five years building, she remembers sitting through one of the strangest dinners of her life.

“The game was weird, but after was way worse,” Cook said. “We went out, and he wouldn't even talk to me.”

John Cook remembers it differently. Despite being on the losing end that afternoon, it would have been impossible not to be proud of how his daughter played. Just months after stepping away from home to make her own name, Lauren Cook ran the UCLA offense with aplomb. She handed out 48 assists and frustrated the Husker attack by scrambling for 15 digs in front of an NCAA-record regular season crowd of 13,870 fans at the Devaney Center.

“That's not true. She's making that up,” John Cook said, chuckling, when told of his daughter's recollection. “I don't remember what all we did, but I don't remember it being awkward.”

Luckily for father and daughter, no matter how the teams' meeting on Saturday night turns out, dinner will at least be eaten with an air of solidarity. Following a standout freshman season in Los Angeles, Lauren Cook transferred to Nebraska, where she and four other Husker seniors begin their final season in Lincoln with a matchup that will have the eyes of the college volleyball world on the NU Coliseum.

Top-ranked and defending national champion UCLA highlights No. 4 Nebraska's opening weekend, which begins Friday when the Huskers face Saint Louis at 7 p.m. at the NU Coliseum following a meeting between UCLA and Notre Dame.

The Huskers and Bruins will then face off at 6 p.m. Saturday in a match televised on the Big Ten Network. Nebraska will then travel to Omaha to play Notre Dame at the CenturyLink Center at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. That match will be shown live on NET.

The opening weekend will require a fast start for the Huskers, who have practiced for just two weeks together leading up to Friday. But Nebraska returns a mostly veteran lineup, with five returning starters from last year's team that won the Big Ten championship in the Huskers' first year in the league.

Lauren Cook will begin her third season as Nebraska's starting setter. Senior outside hitter Gina Mancuso is a returning first-team All-American, with the explosive Hannah Werth on the other side. Junior right-side hitter Morgan Broekhuis was an honorable mention All-American a year ago, and junior middle blocker Hayley Thramer and sophomore libero Lara Dykstra each were starters in 2011.

So what kind of opportunity does this opening weekend present to Nebraska?

“The chance to make history,” Werth said. “This weekend is a great chance to recover, as well. In the Big Ten, we'll be playing a lot of back-to-back great teams.”

But UCLA also brings back the core of its national championship team, led by All-America outside hitter Rachael Kidder, who averaged 4.70 kills per set last season. Junior outside hitter Kelly Reeves is back after a first-team All-Pac-12 season. Senior outside hitter Bojana Todorovic and junior middle blocker Mariana Aquino also return as starters, giving the Bruins a lineup that the Pac-12 coaches overwhelmingly voted to win the league title in the preseason.

Both teams have holes to fill. For UCLA, it's at setter, where freshman Becca Strehlow and sophomore Megan Moenoa have battled to replace the graduated Lauren Van Orden.

For the Huskers, four middle blockers have been in the mix for two starting spots, and all have shined at times. John Cook said Thursday he wouldn't decide Friday's starters until the team's walk-through.

“They've all made it very hard,” the coach said. “One day it's someone, the next day it's someone else. I go by gut feel. I'm going to look in their eyes and see who's ready to go.”

Thramer is the team's best technical blocker. Senior Allison McNeal is an explosive leaper who was impressive in last Saturday's Red-White scrimmage. Redshirt freshman Cecilia Hall is one of the team's most physical players, and true freshman Meghan Haggerty is possibly the most polished incoming middle ever to enter the program.

While a matchup of the two winningest programs in college volleyball history is sure to be put under a spotlight, Werth said Nebraska is keeping it in perspective.

“This isn't the last weekend of the tournament or anything like that,” she said. “We just started practice, so we'll have a lot of things to work out. That's what makes us better at the end. We don't want to peak at the first weekend.”

But it's impossible to put a tight lid on the anticipation for Saturday's match, even though both teams must get through their Friday night openers. This will be the first meeting between NU and UCLA since that 2009 match, and the first time Nebraska has stepped on the floor since ending the 2011 campaign with a disappointing five-set loss in the Coliseum to Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

A strong showing against the defending national champions would rid the Huskers of a sour taste that has lasted the previous nine months, and give John and Lauren Cook a chance for both of them to enjoy dinner.

“I think everyone was ready to get back out on the court after we lost, so it's been a long time waiting,” Lauren Cook said. “Everyone has been ready to go.”

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