After six straight weeks of weekend matches, the Huskers are switching up the schedule this week with a Wednesday night game against No. 14 Michigan State. Coach John Cook said he’s looking forward to having a couple of days to prepare for each match this week after taking on two top-seven teams on back-to-back nights.
“I like it because we have two days to prepare for one team, and it’s very difficult to prepare for two top five teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Cook said. “Personally I like it. I’ll feel more prepared going into that than we did against Wisconsin where it’s a tough turn-around in 24 hours to play another great team like that and not have the preparation time.”
“I feel way better going into that,” Cook said about the Michigan State match. “We were scrambling against Wisconsin. It’s just really hard. You’re putting so much into your first opponent and then you have to regroup and do it again. It’s tough to have two game plans, and those two teams are very different.
“It was a really big challenge for our team, but that’s one of the things I’m most pleased with is we were able to make those adjustments. It took us a couple games, but we finally started making those adjustments. We held [6-foot-8 Wisconsin freshman middle blocker Dana] Rettke probably to one of the lowest percentages she’s had all year and we got better as that match went on. They were hitting astronomical numbers the first game and then we kept bringing it down the whole rest of the way. It was a good job by our players; really good.”
Cook discussed how he generally prepares for a weekend back-to-back and how he focuses heavily on the first opponent during the week.
“We try to, in the beginning of the week, spend some time on who we’re playing second; we try to plant some seeds and then we move on,” Cook said. I’m not sure how valuable that is but at least we try to do it so when we get there at least you’ve got a seed planted there. It’s tough, it’s really tough. How many sports play back-to-back against two top 10 teams? Nobody I can think of.”
After the Huskers finish their first match, the coaches instantly move on the the next opponent.
“First thing in the morning, we’re going through, we’re finishing our report … We have to have it all ready and then we go through a practice, but it’s an hour practice; it’s not like we can go in there and go hard,” Cook said. “You have to do it with video, teaching and our key words that we use and how we train. We try to train concepts so we can apply those concepts to different teams that we meet. We kind of have our language that we talk so hopefully it resonates with them, like ‘Oh yeah, I know what to do.’ We’re still evolving with that because I’ve got a new staff and a lot of young players, so it’s a lot of teaching.”
>> Four games into Big Ten play, Nebraska is first in the Big Ten in kills per set (15.57) and fourth in hitting percentage (.292). With Mikaela Foecke as the only proven returning outside hitter coming into the season, that position was a source of concern for Cook.
“I’m always concerned about that,” Cook said. “You’ve got to kill the ball. We’ve put up some pretty good numbers but it’s going to get tougher and tougher now because teams prepare for us. It will be interesting to see.”
Nebraska has a pair of hitters averaging over three kills per set in Foecke (3.25, .237 hitting) and senior Annika Albrecht (3.15, .356 hitting) and is also getting 2.38 kills per set on .295 hitting from true freshman opposite hitter Jazz Sweet.
Early in the season, teams were focusing their defensive attention more on Foecke, but with Albrecht coming on strong the opposition has adjusted. Albrecht has recorded double-digit kills in six straight match and is hitting .325 during that stretch.
“I just think she’s a senior, she understands her role and her limitations as an attacker and how she has to be creative and be smart,” Cook said about Albrecht. “She’s embraced that. I’ve been talking to her about it for four years and it kind of eventually sinks in.”
Cook did say the Huskers have to get Sweet going again on the right side, though.
After recording four double-digit kill performances in her first nine matches, Sweet has failed to reach that mark in each of her last five matches and is hitting .212 during that span.
“I think getting used to this level back-to-back,” Cook said. “She was pretty good Friday night and then Saturday night she was out of it. I think it’s just understanding you have to bring it every night and how hard you have to play. It’s not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. It’s just a growth process. She should learn each week from these matches. I think a year ago you say ‘Hay Jazz, you’re going to be starting, we’re playing three top-five teams in eight days; are you going to be ready?’ She would have no clue what we were talking about; now she does.”
>> Another true freshman who has made her mark is defensive specialist Hayley Densberger. The product of Malcolm, Nebraska has played in all 14 sets in Big Ten play primarily as a serving specialist.
“We recruited her with the opportunity to do that and of course you never know until they get here, but she just continues to get better and better every week and she’s done a really nice job for a freshman,” Cook said. “These are huge matches she’s in and she’s done a really good job of handling the moment.”
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.