The nonconference slate is in the books and after dropping the season opener against then-No. 7 Florida, the No. 3 Huskers have reeled off nine straight wins. Heading into Big Ten play, Coach John Cook said his team got what it needed to from the preseason.
“I’m very happy with going through the nonconference,” Cook said. “I felt like we really only played one bad match and that was Florida in our first match. I feel like we’ve just gotten better through the course of the nonconference. We had a great match with Creighton, which was really good for us. We dominated some teams that we should dominate; I mean, we really dominated them. I think these guys have done a good job but I think we still have so much more work to do. I feel like we’re just kind of getting to hitting on all cylinders a little bit, but we’ve got a lot more fine-tuning to do that this team’s capable of doing.”
Once again, the Big Ten looks like the best conference in college volleyball with five teams ranked in the top eight of the country and seven in the top 25.
“We’re used to it,” Cook said. “I’ve been telling them, every week we’re playing a ranked team, so get ready. There’s no easy nights … I’m looking forward to it. The Big Ten is fun, it’s competitive, you get everybody’s best shot, so it makes us better.”
The Huskers open up conference play against one of those ranked teams, No. 18 Michigan (11-0), at the Devaney Center on Friday. On Sunday, the Huskers will host Michigan State (12-1), who is just outside the top 25.
“I think it’s definitely very important to start off strong, to set the tone for the season,” senior setter Brooke Smith said. “We’re going into conference play now and I know Michigan hasn’t lost a game yet, so it’s going to be a very tough match. They’re definitely on a roll. We’re figuring some stuff out and we’re starting to click so I think it will be a good test and I think it will give us a good idea of where we’re at and how we can finish the season strong into postseason.”
Nebraska setter Brooke Smith will have a little more on the line on Saturday than the rest of her teammates. Natalie Smith, a sophomore defensive specialist for Michigan, is Brooke’s younger sister. Cook said the competition between the two will be fierce.
“With those two guys, I don’t know; I would not want to get in the middle of that,” Cook said. “They will be trash-talking going on and those two go at it. They’re sisters, but they’re both very competitive.”
Smith said she is looking forward to the first of two meetings this season with the Wolverines this season.
“Obviously I’m very proud of Natalie,” Smith said. “I’m super proud of her and all that she’s accomplished. I would say this match is definitely for bragging rights, though. We grew up super competitive in everything we did. Everything was a competition, from just little household things to big matches or big races in track. I think it is incredibly special but I think Coach is right, it’s pretty competitive too.”
The sisters grew up competing with and against each other in volleyball and track and field. In fact, competition was in their blood. Mother Janine played volleyball and father Warren competed in track, both at Texas.
“I think us being competitive made us better athletes,” Smith said. “I think, ultimately, it made us closer. We’re the best of friends now but there were definitely some arguments surrounding it. That’s just always the way we’ve been. It’s how both my parents are. It’s a lot of love though.”
Fridays match will pit the top two defensive teams in the country against each other as both the Huskers and Wolverines are only allowing their opponents to hit .109 this season. Nebraska is coming off back-to-back monster blocking performances with 16.5 blocks in a four-set win over New Mexico and 13 blocks in a sweep over Missouri State.
“We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the country in opponent attack percentage, and that’s what our goal every year is,” Cook said. “The first goal on there is be the No. 1 team in the Big Ten in opponent attack efficiency because every year in the Big Ten, whoever is the best wins the Big Ten. We’ve been working really hard on it.”
Sophomore outside hitter Sami Slaughter did not participate in practice on Wednesday because of illness. Slaughter has appeared in 14 sets this season but last played against Central Michigan on Sept. 14 prior to Texas transfer Lexi Sun’s insertion into the lineup.
First serve against Michigan is set for 8 p.m. on Friday on BTN. Sunday’s match against the Spartans will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday on ESPNU.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.