Down 2-0 to the Gophers, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook couldn’t bear to think about what would happen if his team lost. The 2006 Final Four was being held in Omaha, and the Cornhuskers felt they would let down the entire state if they didn’t get there.
“I’m thinking, ‘We just blew this whole thing,’ ” Cook said last week, recalling that regional final in Gainesville, Fla. “We knew it was sold out in Omaha, and the pressure got to us. You want it so bad. That’s what makes it really hard.”
Nebraska rallied to beat the Gophers in five sets, giving it the same prize the Gophers are pursuing this fall: a berth in a home-state Final Four. This year’s NCAA championship will be decided at Target Center in mid-December, the first time the Final Four has been held in Minnesota since the 1988 edition was played at Williams Arena.
Like the Huskers in 2006, 2008 and 2015, the No. 3 Gophers know their devoted fan base is aching to watch them win a title at home. Their strong start to the season has only added to the anticipation. The Gophers enter Saturday’s match against No. 5 Nebraska at Maturi Pavilion with a 15-2 record, sweeping eight of their first nine Big Ten opponents on their way to a 9-0 league mark.
But they are only halfway through a rugged conference schedule, with five weeks to go before the 64-team NCAA tournament field is announced on Nov. 25. Coach Hugh McCutcheon and middle blocker Taylor Morgan both said they are not hearing much Final Four chatter, in part because they are keeping their heads low in the midst of a busy season.
“Maybe it’s because I’m living under a rock,” Morgan said. “But nobody’s really talking to us. We’re just keeping our nose to the ground, doing what we have to do.”
Cook, though, knows how hard it can be to handle the unique challenges of trying to get to a Final Four as the home team.
“I felt extreme pressure every time we hosted one of those,” said Cook, whose Huskers won the 2006 and 2015 titles in Omaha and added another last year in Kansas City. “Everybody talks about it. People just assume you’re going to be in it.
“You go to the store or get a coffee, and it’s, ‘Hey, we’ll see you in the Final Four!’ You feel like you’re going to disappoint everyone if you don’t get in it. The hardest part is just getting there.”
The Gophers got a taste of the venue in the season-opening Big Ten/ACC Challenge, though the crowd was a fraction of what it will be in December. The lower bowl at Target Center, which has a capacity of 19,356, was entirely sold out as of Friday. Tickets remained available in only 11 of 40 sections in the upper deck.
Cook has been down this road three times as head coach of the Huskers. He has not tried to shelter his team from thinking about the endgame, believing it is better to embrace the expectations rather than hide from them. In 2015, the Huskers had “Destination Omaha” T-shirts made up, and a Final Four billboard stood alongside Interstate 80 during the 2006 season.
McCutcheon stays off social media and spends most of the season sequestered with his team or his family, so he doesn’t hear much outside buzz. He knows, though, that his players are being inundated with “the unfiltered opinions of many” — particularly through social media — and is trying to help them shield themselves from outside pressure.
“We can’t escape it, so we’re not trying to escape it,” McCutcheon said. “It’s great that people are excited about it. But we’re accepting it for what it is: other people’s expectations. We’ve got to take care of today.”
The next step happens Saturday against the defending NCAA champions. Nebraska has won five national titles, and senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke has been named most outstanding player at two Final Fours.
Like her coach, she has felt the pressure of trying to make a local Final Four — but she said it doesn’t have to be an obstacle.
“I think that just drove us even more, not wanting to disappoint anyone,” Foecke said. “Knowing that if you make it, there will be a home crowd cheering you on, it’s incredibly motivational.”