No. 4 Nebraska just emerged from a two-week period that saw them take down four top-15 teams including two top-seven teams in as many days, but Coach John Cook said this coming week might be the toughest yet as the Huskers will travel to No. 11 Wisconsin on Wednesday before swinging through West Lafayette on Saturday to take on No. 16 Purdue.
“We have to play two really good teams on the road this week, so this might be as challenging a week as there’s been in the Big Ten so far,” Cook said.
Sitting at 13-3 overall and 6-0 in the Big Ten, the perfectionist in Cook only sees the areas where he doesn’t feel the team has lived up to its potential to this point, though he declined to elaborate as far as what those areas are.
Despite their lofty ranking and strong record, Nebraska is in the bottom half of Big Ten teams in hitting percentage, blocks and service aces. How are they still undefeated in conference play? The Huskers are first in opponents’ hitting percentage (.148) and in digs (16.22 per set).
“When you play top 10 teams, they’re good so you’re not going to hit .300 because they serve well, they block and play D,” Cook said. “The question is can we hold them to a lower hitting percentage and make less errors. One of the big things is winning the serve and pass allows us to have the opportunity to do some of that. If we can serve them and get them out of system and if we can not get out of system, that really is the difference-maker in a lot of those tight matches.”
The serve and pass game is something Cook stresses constantly and it is the easiest way for a player to crack the rotation on his team. True freshman Hayley Densberger is a great example of that: Cook is going to play his six best servers and the defensive specialist from Malcolm, Nebraska is one of them.
“I feel like we’ve got six good servers that can stress teams,” Cook said. “So there’s not like ‘oh, here’s a server that’s going to be an easy serve.’ Some of the teams we play, there are some easy servers. You want to have those passers thinking ‘OK, every serve that comes over here is going to be a tough serve.’ That’s why I talk to our team about if you can serve, you’re going to play.”
Serving has been an adventure thus far for junior libero Kenzie Maloney who is leading the team with 24 service errors, eight more than any other Husker. Through her firs six matches, Maloney, who transitioned into her libero role after playing defensive specialist during her first two seasons in Lincoln, served up just three aces and 15 errors.
However, in the last 10 games, she has doubled her aces while recording just nine errors, and that includes a zero-assist, three-error match against Wisconsin.
“It’s confidence,” said Cook, who acknowledged her improvement. “That’s the same question with Mikaela [Foecke]. It’s all new to Kenzie, being a libero, playing six rotations. She hasn’t served in two years. It’s an adjustment. She’s building into it really well.”
Part of Maloney’s error-problem was her own aggressiveness, which she has tried to reign in more recently.
“She likes to go for it,” Cook said. “She realizes that if you go for it a lot, you’re going to miss a lot, so it’s just backing her off because she’s aggressive. That’s the hitter in her; she was a hitter her whole life. When you haven’t served for two years, there’s going to be some stress there and it’s just a matter of her getting her confidence and managing that part of her game.”
Speaking of Foecke, the junior outside hitter is making her own transition into being a six-rotation player and is averaging a career-high 3.18 kills per set but also hitting a career-low .219.
“I just think it’s the transition to being a six-rotation player,” Cook said. “She has a lot more she has to think about and be good at. In the past she’d just come in and hit and that’s it. That’s part of the deal.”
Cook said he’s willing to live with the growing pains now in order to raise the ceiling for Foecke and the team as a whole, and it also doesn’t hurt that she has become one of the team’s better back-row players.
“This is a work in progress and we’re developing her,” Cook said. “We stat it and we know her stats are doing. She’s done some nice things defensively and she’s a great server and her attack has been a little bit off compared to her standards. It’s just part of her evolution of becoming a six-rotation player.”
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.