The postseason is fast approaching, and at 22-4 overall and 15-1 in the Big Ten, the No. 5 Huskers are in the driver’s seat for their second straight Big Ten title.
However, the No. 1 Penn State Nittany Lions (25-1, 15-1) are breathing down their necks. The Huskers handed Penn State its only loss of the season on Sept. 22.
“I don’t think Penn State’s going to lose,” Coach John Cook said. “They’ve got some tough matches, but so do we. We’ve just got to assume they’re not going to lose.”
The Nittany Lions have Indiana and Rutgers this week but close out the regular season with a tough road trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Still, Cook isn’t talking about that with his team. Their focus remains on taking things point-by-point.
“They know what’s at stake,” Cook said. “Typically it comes down to the last weekend, the last day on Saturday what happens, so we’ll see. We know we’ve got to take care of business.”
Nebraska certainly took care of business last weekend, sweeping both Maryland and Rutgers at the Devaney Center while outscoring them 150-74 in total.
Next up is a three-match road trip starting with a back-to-back at Ohio State and at Maryland on Friday and Saturday.
“As I told the team, the ante goes up every week,” Cook said. “Fortunately we’re in the game where the ante’s getting pretty high, so it’s an important week and we’re going to have to go and be able to play two great matches back-to-back on the road. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
The Buckeyes are 14-13 overall and 7-9 in Big Ten play. The Terrapins are 16-12 and 5-11.
“Ohio State we haven’t seen yet, but they’ve had some big wins,” Cook said. “They’ve had some big wins against us over the years. St. John Arena [in Columbus] is a great place to play, it’s a fun place to play, I think we really like playing there, but again, it’s their home court. Maryland we just played last week so we have to go back and play them again at their place and we’re expecting a much tougher match at their place. It’s Big Ten, it’s back-to-back, we’ve got to be able to grind for two matches and whatever happens Friday, we’ve got to mentally prepare to have another great effort Saturday.”
Over the last three matches, Nebraska has hit a blistering .425 and allowed just .040 hitting in sweeps over Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers. Those teams are three of the bottom four in the league, so level of competition has something to do with the lopsided results, but the Huskers are playing the way Cook wants them to heading down the stretch.
“It’s probably a little bit of a combination of playing teams that maybe aren’t as strong defensively … Our goal is to be the best defensive team in the conference,” Cook said. "We’ve got a shot to do that; that’s something we’re really stressing with our team. Offensively, we want to be low-error and we want to be balanced. We had six hitting errors against Rutgers and Maryland was really low, so we’re constantly stressing those areas.”
Individually, redshirt freshman middle blocker is starting to come into her own. Since hitting in the negative for the first and only time this season against Wisconsin on Oct. 11, Stivrins has hit .388 in nine matches. She’s only committed more than two errors once in that stretch (three against Michigan on Oct. 29) and had her first errorless match against Purdue (now up to No. 15 in the AVCA Coaches Poll).
“Her confidence is growing and her and Kelly are getting in a great rhythm,” Cook said. “Remember, it’s her first year playing. I think it’s just confidence. Her block numbers have been really good, how we evaluate blocking, and her attack numbers — she plays that position, that player’s got to be able to stress teams and get kills.”
Another player who has made tremendous strides in a new role is junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Maloney is leading the team with 3.84 digs per set and after starting the season with nine service aces to 26 errors, Maloney has served up 10 aces and committed just three errors over the last nine games.
“I think Kenzie’s been really solid,” Cook said. “I’ve seen her confidence grow over the season, and one way we can all evaluate that is her serving. Early on she was really struggling serving; now she’s really serving tough and has put up great serving numbers. She’s become a much better setter when Kelly digs . . . She’s much improved in that area. I think she’s a stud and is doing a great job. I look at the best liberos in the Big Ten, I’m not sure who I’d put in front of her.”
Maloney has had a strong season, but Cook wasn’t ready to compare her — or anyone else on the team — to former libero Justine Wong-Orantes, whose “coach on the court” IQ lead to landing a coaching job shortly after exhausting her eligibility last season. However, Cook did praise the team’s intelligence as a whole.
“Our volleyball IQ as a team is really high and we make really good adjustments and they understand what needs to happen,” Cook said. “As a collective group, this is a really sharp group.”
First serve at Columbus is set for Friday at 5 p.m., while Saturday’s match is set to begin at 6 p.m. Both matches are available on BTN Plus.
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.