The annual season-opening VERT Challenge is the first big benchmark tournament of the NCAA season. The tournament, which includes Texas, Oregon, Florida, and Nebraska every year, rotates hosts. The home team gets to set the schedule, which each of the 4 teams getting to play 2 of the others. This year’s host happens to be the defending NCAA Champion Nebraska Cornhuskers, and there’s one enticing matchup that couldn’t be passed up here: a repeat of last year’s NCAA Championship match against the Florida Gators. That’s in spite of Florida knocking them off at last year’s VERT Challenge – that year hosted in Gainesville.
2018 is the last year scheduled for this tournament.
This year, both teams will have very different lineups than they did in December. Florida graduated Rhamat Alhassan, Carli Snyder, and Caroline Knop, meaning that they’ll be without 3 of their 7 starters for that championship match and 3 All-Americans. They do bring in Thayer Hall, who is already on campus, to bolster the offense – she’s the two-time defending Gatorade National High School Player of the Year. Nebraska graduates their All-American setter Kelly Hunter, along with several other key pieces like AVCA Second-Team All-American outside hitter Annika Albrecht. For the Huskers, Hunter’s graduation, along with the transfer of Hunter Atherton, that means they’ll be handing the offense to Nicklin Hames, a freshman setter from Knoxville and the best in the class at her position.
Nebraska has also added sophomore Lexi Sun, via transfer, who comes from Texas. She was one of the country’s top recruits in her class, but left the Longhorns after one season.
Unfortunately, for fans of drama, Nebraska and Texas won’t play, so we won’t see Sun versus her old team, at least not in the regular season. According to Nebraska head coach John Cook in an interview with HuskerExtra, that was Texas’ preference.
“I just asked all of the coaches, who would you like to play?” Cook said. “Well, Florida wants to play us and Oregon wants to play us, and Texas did not want to play us, so it kind of worked itself out.”
“Our fans would want to see (Nebraska vs. Texas), but it is what it is, and maybe it will be a little less stress for everybody,” Cook said.
He also revealed some more details about Nebraska’s 2018 schedule, though he said it’s not finalized. They won’t leave the state during the non-conference season, after hosting 3 tournaments and playing a one-off against in-state rivals Creighton at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. They’ll also host a non-conference game with Iowa State. Cook says he hopes to make both of those teams, historic rivals for Nebraska, fixtures on Nebraska’s schedule going forward, with Creighton already scheduled for the return trip to Lincoln in 2019.
The 61-year old Cook says that he still has a 5 year plan, and plans to coach for at least that long.