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Conversations with Cook: Big Ten Brings Both Comfort and Challenge
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Conversations with Cook: Big Ten Brings Both Comfort and Challenge

September 24, 2019

The Big Ten season has arrived, and as Coach John Cook is fond of saying, that means it’s time for the ante to go up. But with the increased level of competition comes a sense of comfort for Nebraska’s coach.

“It’s a great challenge,” Cook said. “The fun part for me is we’re in a routine now. We’re in a routine, we know whether it’s a Wednesday-Saturday or Friday-Saturday, we have a routine through the week. I like that. For me, it’s great. I know how we prepare and what days we do what. When you’re playing three matches in a weekend that throws it off. I like it, I enjoy being in a routine.”

Cook said he thinks his players feel the same way.

“I think they all really crave it, actually,” Cook said. “You kind of know each week: OK, here’s our plan for this week and next week it will be a little bit different, but we’ve done it enough to know how the routine goes. They like routine … I think we’re more used to that, being in that routine and understanding the grind for the next 10 weeks. This is a mental and physical grind.”

This is Nebraska’s ninth season in the Big Ten. Having spent time in the conference as an assistant at Wisconsin, Cook had a good feel for what awaited Nebraska when the university joined the Big Ten, and he knew what the program needed to do to continue to succeed.

“I think the biggest thing to change is you’ve got to have some depth,” Cook said. “Especially when you go on the road back-to-back and you're playing two top-10 teams, you’ve got to have some other people that can come in and help out. You’ve got to have some back-row subs that can help. I think Penn State figured that out a long time ago, how they managed their front row, back row, and how they recruit. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

The Huskers got a boost to their depth last weekend as sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis returned from a strained abdominal muscle. She played a big role during Nebraska’s first two matches, rotating with freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik. Cook eased her back into the rotation against Stanford and Wichita State.

“I hope it’s really good,” Cook said about Davis’ return to action. “We’ll have to see how she does this week. She can be a game-changer, but she’s got to show up every day.”

Nebraska’s depth was also challenged against the Shockers when libero Kenzie Knuckles was held out of the lineup with a headache. Sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller filled in for Knuckles at libero, tying her season high with 14 digs, while junior defensive specialist Hayley Densberger replaced Miller at right back. Cook has also found spots to get freshmen Nicole Drewnick and Riley Zuhn and redshirt sophomore Anezka Szabo into matches.

Depth isn’t the only key to success in the Big Ten, however.

“The second thing is that I think you have to be preparing your team all along,” Cook said. “For example, when we played some of these nonconference matches, we’re talking about, ‘OK, when we play Illinois, we’re going to have to do this, or Northwestern.’ You can only prepare so much and then you have to play a match, and then less than 24 hours you’re playing another match. You’ve got to be able to put in a game plan really quick and make adjustments really quick, so we’re always constantly trying to do that.”

While he’s become accustomed to the Big Ten scheduling, he did say he prefers when the Huskers’ matches fall on Wednesday and Saturday in a given week rather than Friday and Saturday.

“What other sport is playing back-to-back on the road? Nobody,” Cook said. “We’re the only sport doing that. Hockey plays back-to-back, but no other sports are doing that. I’m not in charge, I don’t make the rules, but if you’re asking my opinion I think Wednesday-Saturday is a fairer way to compete and it’s easier on the athletes, and it gives everybody a chance to play their best. When you’re playing back-to-back, what happens on Friday night really can determine a lot of what happens on Saturday night.”

However, the Friday-Saturday matches and the level of play on a nightly basis, while difficult, are part of what makes Big Ten teams such tough outs in the postseason.

“What that does is if you look at the results in the NCAA Tournament of the Big Ten, it prepares you really well for what you’re going to see,” Cook said. “Our players, I think, get a competitive advantage going through the Big Ten because there are no easy nights.”

Heading into conference play, Nebraska is first in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage at .135 but only 12th in hitting percentage at .235. Even so, Cook isn’t focused on any one area for improvement.

“We’re always working on everything,” Cook said. “Every day, we’re going to work on every skill, every fundamental, and work on all those things every day. I think it builds over time and if you don’t, you lose it.”

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