The stretch run of the 2019 season has arrived for the Nebraska volleyball team.
“What I’m telling the team today is that we have six Big Ten matches left and one of our goals is to win the Big Ten, so it’s very similar to what will start in the NCAA Tournament: you have six matches to win a national championship,” Coach John Cook said. “We’re looking at two seasons here — six matches in the Big Ten and trying to work to win the Big Ten, and then hopefully we’ll get a shot to do that same thing in the NCAA Tournament. That’s kind of going to be our focus.
“Like I’ve been telling our freshmen, it goes fast at the end, it flies by. They’re not freshmen anymore, they’re sophomores.”
The Huskers have two freshmen in the starting lineup and six total on the team, and Cook said the group still has some freshman moments.
“They have good days and bad days,” Cook said. “We’ve had two people forget IDs [before road trips], if that’s any indication. We had some miscommunications in the Iowa game that we have to address; we forgot to talk on some plays. They forget water bottles. Typical freshman stuff. They’re sophomores starting today, so all that’s going to go away.”
The race for the Big Ten title suddenly is a lot more interesting than it was a week ago after Wisconsin lost at Ohio State on Friday. It was the Badgers’ first conference loss and drops them into a tie for first with Minnesota at 13-1 in league play. Nebraska and Penn State are right behind at 12-2.
“There are some great matches here in the next three weeks,” Cook said. “If you look at where the top four or five teams are right now, everybody’s playing everybody here down the stretch. Then you've got these other matches — for us, Michigan State, Ohio State just knocked off Wisconsin, Iowa we’ll probably have at full strength Saturday, we’ve got to play Maryland again who’s had some really great matches plus Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s an exciting time and a lot of big matches happening. I think that’s what you want at the Big Ten, for that to shake out so if you can win a championship, it really means something and it was hard to do.”
Cook said the Huskers are focused on themselves and what they need to do, but that loss by Wisconsin certainly made Nebraska’s goal of winning the conference more attainable.
“I don’t know if it adds any more urgency to us, but I think it puts everybody in a group now,” Cook said. “Wisconsin was kind of separated, now they’re kind of back in the group. Like I said, it’s all going to shake out in the next three weeks because I think Minnesota plays Wisconsin, we play them, Penn State plays them, I can’t remember who else is in there. There are some huge matches coming up.”
What will be the determining factor in who wins the race?
“It’s going to come down to who can win close games, because there are going to be a lot of close games,” Cook said. “Who can be two points better?”
The Huskers moved up one spot to No. 6 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll after sweeping Northwestern at home and Iowa on the road. The Huskers are currently eighth in the RPI.
The top three remain unchanged with Texas (50 first-place votes), Pittsburgh (12) and Baylor (one) holding steady.
Wisconsin’s loss dropped the Badgers from No. 4 to No. 7. Minnesota moved up No. 5 and Penn State slid up one spot as well to No. 8. Purdue dropped one spot to No. 16 after losing at Penn State in four sets. Michigan went from just outside the top 25 to No. 23 and is sitting in fifth place in the Big Ten at 10-4. Illinois is just hanging on to its ranking, falling from No 21 to No. 25 after losing to the Wolverines in four sets in Ann Arbor.
Stanford took Wisconsin’s spot at No. 4 and once again received one first-place vote. Creighton saw its 35-match Big East winning streak snapped against Villanova on Friday and drops five spots to No. 14. UCLA fell back out of the top 25 and is now second among others receiving votes, but that opened the door for San Diego to jump back in at No. 23.
On the injury front, sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach injured her thumb during practice last week and had it wrapped against Iowa, but Cook said it won’t keep her out.
“I don’t think she would have said anything unless the trainer asked her,” Cook said. “Tough girl.”
This week’s schedule includes a road match against Michigan State and a home match against Iowa.
“We’ve got a big trip to Michigan State Wednesday,” Cook said. “As I tell them, the ante goes up every week. So each week, the ante goes up and matches become more and more important, and this is a huge match for us.”
The Huskers beat the Spartans in four sets in Lincoln on Oct. 11 thanks to a dominant defensive showing. First serve is scheduled for 6 p.m. on BTN+.
The Huskers swept a short-handed Iowa team in Iowa City on Saturday and now the Hawkeyes will travel to Lincoln for a rematch a week later. That match is set for a 7 p.m. start on NET.
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.