The postseason is just a few days away as the NCAA Tournament Selection Show is set for Sunday night, but before then, the Huskers have an even bigger challenge to face and they are not looking ahead by any means.
“It still feels like Big Ten, unfortunately,” Lauren Stivrins said. “This grind is a whole different breed. Honestly, it makes the NCAA Tournament feel like a breeze. We’re still getting after each and every day and excited about the finishing out this Big Ten season.”
Nebraska rallied from a three-losses-in-four-matches stretch midseason and now, through nine weeks, the Huskers have done enough to put themselves in a position to win a Big Ten title.
“I think we’ve worked super hard to get to where we’re at and put ourselves in this situation,” Stivrins said. “So I think we’re excited and this team is on the up-and-up and I hope we can continue that and take it into this weekend.”
These last two wins won’t come easy. The Huskers will face No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 7 Purdue, both on the road, and they’ll need to elevate their level of play to get it done, especially against a Wisconsin team Nebraska hasn’t beat since 2017.
“We all know we haven’t been, for some reason even though we have been winning and whatever, we’ve had a few losses, but we haven’t been playing the way that we practice and slowly we’re seeing little bits of that translate over into the games and it’s been really nice to see that happen,” Stivrins said. “I think our team has also mentally grown up so much throughout this whole season. We’ve gone like this pretty much this whole season, and so now we’re just starting to figure it out and calm down and realize just how good we are and how talented we are. And we always talked about this, our talent level is here and our confidence level is here and we’re slowly, just a few more big wins and we’ll be back to matching our talent level. But for right now, consistency is what’s been holding us back and so I think we’re slowly figuring it out and we’re getting back up there.”
All season long, the key for Nebraska has been finishing close games. They’ve rarely gotten blown out this season. The Huskers have won three in a row (not including the Rutgers forfeit) since taking their last loss against Ohio State, and two of those matches — Maryland and Penn State — required big comebacks late in set two in order to complete a sweep.
“I think we’re just continuing to build that resilience muscle of just trusting our training in those big moments when we need to make a play and just leaning on each other and having trust that we’re going to try and better the ball for each other and trusting that and trusting each other,” Madi Kubik said. “I think it’s just we’re continuing to grow that every single week.”
The Huskers have been the best defensive team in the conference most of the way, but they’ve struggled to terminate the ball consistently over the second half of the conference season, especially from the pins. Kubik, Lexi Sun, Ally Batenhorst, Lindsay Krause and Whitney Lauenstein have all had their moments of brilliance, but each of them have gotten benched as well as John Cook has tinkered with his lineup looking for his best options.
“I think just, I don’t know, not making it more than it is,” Kubik said about the inconsistency. “The way that we hit off the boys [in practice], they’re jumping equally as high as Dana Rettke or whoever, whatever block we’re going to see in the rest of the couple matches. So I guess just trusting in that and knowing that we have trained to hit against whoever is blocking us.”
Nebraska likely can’t afford to give away points early in matches moving forward if one of the starting pins just doesn’t have it the day, but Cook still sees the depth — with freshmen in Batenhorst and Lauenstein on the bench waiting to hear their numbers called — as an asset as the Huskers prepare for their first back-to-back since the second week of the season.
“It’s really important, but this weekend, if we have two marathon matches, we’re going to need to and I think that’s hurt us in the past on that, not having some depth of players we can play,” Cook said. “That’s been part of the plan all along is we’ve got players so we‘ve got to use them and everybody feels like they’re ready. If somebody’s struggling, we’ve got options because it’s do-or-die now.”
The Badgers beat the Huskers 3-0 in Lincoln on Oct. 27, but two of those sets were deuce games despite the Huskers playing what they felt was a sub-par game — hitting .148 and allowing .229 to Wisconsin including 12 kills on .647 hitting by freshman middle Anna Smrek, who hasn’t topped six kills in a match since.
“We were not our best that night by any means,” Stivrins said. “In any aspect of the game, that’s just not how we’ve been playing and training and practicing and whatever and so to see that kind of come out, and the fact that we lost those sets by two points, and we were playing, in our eyes, very poorly, we’re definitely excited for this matchup and excited to see what team shows up.”
Wisconsin is tied with Nebraska atop the Big Ten standings at 15-3 in conference and is 23-3 overall. They’re first in league in hitting percentage at .268 led by All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke. The 6-foot-8 super senior is averaging 3.49 kills per set on .447. The Badgers are loaded with seniors who came back for an extra year including reigning Big Ten setter of the Year Sydney Hilley and All-American Iibero Lauren Barnes.
“I think we have to play Nebraska volleyball,” Kubik said. “I don’t think we need to do anything special. I think we need to play the game that we’ve been playing and at a consistent level for a long time and do that to win three sets by two points, and that’s that’s it. It doesn’t have to be we have to go in there and kill them in three, whatever. Just play Nebraska volleyball for a long period of time.”
The Huskers and Badgers will face off in Madison on Friday, and then Nebraska will have a quick turnaround as the Huskers head to West Lafayette to take on Purdue to close out the regular season on Saturday. Nebraska beat the Boilermakers 3-1 in Lincoln back on Oct. 23 behind a big game from the middles and Krause.
Purdue (22-5) is one game back of the Huskers and Badgers at 14-4 in conference play led by Caitlyn Newton’s 3.97 kills per set on .215 hitting and Grace Cleveland’s 3.12 kills per set on .278 hitting. Purdue and Wisconsin are both allowing Big Ten opponents to hit .173 this season, second behind only Nebraska at .149. Both of Nebraska’s opponents play Indiana (10-20, 4-14) in their other match this weekend, so the two matches against Nebraska will likely determine the conferee title race.
“I think it’s going to be the team that wins with thumping serves and defense, which I think we have been really great at in the past couple weeks,” Kubik said. “And so I think we just have to go in and trust our serves and play the long game and win in transition.”
First serve on Friday is set for 4:30 p.m. Saturday’s match is set to begin at 8 p.m. Big Ten Network will televise both of them.
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.