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Big Ten Title at Stake As Nebraska Hosts No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 9 Minnesota

November 23, 2022

After nine long, grueling weeks, the Big Ten race comes down to the final weekend. Nebraska controls its own fate — two wins and the Huskers claim at least a share of the conference title.

“I think this weekend has a chance to be some great volleyball, very intense, Coach John Cook said. “We’ve been working since January to get to this point where we’d have this opportunity to compete for a Big Ten championship. The team’s worked hard, our staff’s worked really hard and we just have to go for it. It will be fun for our fans.”

No. 3 Wisconsin sits alone atop the standings at 17-1. No. 5 Nebraska is one match back at 16-2. After a 0-2 showing in week nine, No. 8 Ohio State has fallen to third at 15-3. 

The Badgers will face both the Huskers and Buckeyes this weekend; win both and they claim the title outright. Lose to the Huskers and things get interesting, because Nebraska and Ohio State will also face No. 9 Minnesota (fourth place at 13-5).

“I think it’s great for the conference,” Cook said. “Look at the matches that are going to be played, and it’s not just our little quad. Those guys are playing at Ohio State then you’ve got Illinois and Northwestern, Michigan. These guys are all playing matches to get in the tournament. They’re trying to get into tournaments, so there are huge matches all across the whole Big Ten. It’s going to be a pretty drama-filled weekend for a lot of teams. You want it to come down to that.”

Nebraska’s hopes for a chance at the title suffered a blow when Nebraska lost to Ohio State in four sets on Nov. 13, but the Huskers bounced back with a pair of sweeps over Iowa and No. 19 Purdue last week while the Buckeyes stumbled against Maryland in four sets and against Indiana in five. Now, all of the team’s goals remain within reach.

“We’ve talked a lot about being able to play for this Big Ten championship this weekend and I think the entire team and staff are really excited for that opportunity,” senior Madi Kubik said. “After this last weekend, we put ourselves in that position because college volleyball was pretty crazy this last weekend with some teams not performing as well and hurting their chances at competing for that title. So I’m really proud of our team for bouncing back after that loss against Ohio State and playing two great matches, and I think we’re really excited for this weekend.” 

In order for Saturday’s regular season finale to truly mean something, Nebraska first has to get a win on Friday as the Badgers swing through Lincoln for a rematch. Wisconsin swept Nebraska in Madison back on Oct. 26, and the Badgers have won their seven matches since as well, extending their winning streak to 16 straight.

Wisconsin is first in the Big Ten in hitting (.270) and second in opponent hitting percentage (.156), behind only Nebraska’s nation-leading .120. The Badgers have a deep and talented group of offensive options including pins Sarah Franklin (3.59 kills per set, .233 hitting) and Julia Orzol (2.71 kills per set, .225 hitting), opposite middle blockers Devyn Robinson (2.58 ills per set, .316 hitting) and 6-foot-9 Anna Smrek (1.45 kills per set, .279 hitting) and middle blocker Danielle Hart (1.83 kills per set, Big Ten-best .443 hitting).

“Their lineup’s a little different, but we’ve got to deal with Robinson and Hart and Smrek. You’ve got to do a great job on those guys. And they also have left sides — Franklin killed us last time. Defensively, it’s a big challenge, but we’ve got to side out better so we have more opportunities to shut those guys down. So that’s that’s the biggest thing.”

Franklin went off for 21 kills on .381 hitting in the first meeting while Hart had nine blocks. Where Nebraska really broke down was in serve receive, however, and that allowed Wisconsin to dictate the way that match was going to be played. Nebraska has given up the fewest aces in the Big ten by a significant margin, but they weren’t locked in on that night as the Badgers (second in the conference in aces) picked them apart for six aces and many other bad passes. Cook said they’ll have to handle it better on Friday if they want to have a chance to win.

“I would just say being aggressive is something that we talked about with passing against them because they they do have really good servers, and we know exactly what they’re going to do,” Kenzie Knuckles said. “So it’s honestly just the mentality of going in there and doing it and being aggressive with what we’re doing.”

Nebraska has lost nine straight matches to the Badgers, and in order to end that streak the Huskers are focusing on their side of the net and what they need to do differently this time around.

“I think we’ve talked about it in a lot of different fashions and we’re focusing on the things that we can do and the things that are really important to our team and what helps us to play great volleyball regardless of who’s on the other side of the net,” Kubik said. “I think in past times that we’ve played them, we haven’t always been 100% on those things, and I think if our team can make a really great commitment to those for this upcoming weekend, then we’re going to be able to perform really well.”

If the Huskers do win on Friday, they’ll need to move on quickly with the Golden Gophers coming to town. The two teams have not yet played this season, though Minnesota is the lone Big ten team to beat Wisconsin thus far.

The Golden Gophers are second in the Big Ten in hitting behind the Badgers at .260 and fourth in opponent hitting at .180. They’re third in blocks as well at 2.82 per set — one spot behind Wisconsin (3.01) and one spot ahead of Nebraska (2.74).

Taylor Landfair is pacing the attack with a Big Ten-leading 4.33 kills per set on .251 hitting. Freshman McKenna Wucherer, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class, is adding 2.91 kills per set on .251 hitting. Carter Booth, a 6-foot-7 freshman Maddie blocker, is averaging 1.92 kills per set on .365 hitting and 1.34 blocks per set. Junior Melani Shaffmaster orchestrates the offense with 10.33 assists per set (third in the Big Ten).

“Landfair is a great player, they’ve got a great setter and Carter Booth’s up for freshman of the year, potentially,” Cook said. “They’re typical Minnesota, they’ve got a lot of talent and they play really fast. They’re a big challenge to prepare for.”

First serve against Wisconsin on Friday is set for 7 p.m. CT. The Huskers will close out the regular season on senior night Saturday with an 8 p.m start. Both matches will be televised on Big Ten Network.

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