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Conversations with Cook: Defense Wins Championships
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Conversations with Cook: Defense Wins Championships

October 26, 2017

No. 7 Nebraska is getting ready to begin the second half of the Big Ten season after making it through the first half atop the standings at 9-1 and 16-4 overall. However, you won't find many Huskers at the top of individual statistical categories in the conference.

Briana Holman is leading the Huskers during league play in hitting percentage at .349, 10th in the conference. Annika Albrecht is tops in kills at 3.64 per set, sixth in the Big Ten. Kelly Hunter is fifth in assists per set at 11.17. Lauren Stivrins paces the team in blocks per set at 1.08, good for ninth. Kenzie Maloney is notching 3.56 digs per set, eight in the Big Ten. There is not a single Husker among the top 15 service aces.

However, as a team, the Huskers are top four in hitting percentage, assists and kills which has contributed to Nebraska totaling 319 more points including 212 more kills than its opponents this season.

“We’re balanced,” Coach john Cook said. “If you’re going to try to stop somebody, somebody else will make you pay. That’s the big thing we’ve been preaching. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful because Kelly’s really good at figuring that out. You look every night, everybody’s got pretty close to the same number of kills for most nights. I think we’re just a balanced team.”

Nebraska’s five primary offensive options all average between 2.03 and 3.44 kills per set in league play.

One area in particular where the Huskers are falling short of their goal is out-of-system hitting, which is when a player other than the setter has to set for a hitter.  

“We want to hit .200 or higher out of system,” Cook said. “We’re about .050.”

Part of the team’s struggles in that area of the game has to do with its inexperience.

“[Maloney] is going to get a lot of reps in out-of-system setting,” Cook said. “That’s one thing, and then our hitters understanding what they have available to them and what shots they need to hit. We work on it every day. Anni hasn’t hit out-of-system in three years, Mikaela has and Jazz [Sweet] is new. Those are the three people getting out of system swings and Kenzie is new at setting it. It’s a work in progress.”

Albrecht’s emergence as a hitter and Foecke transitioning into a six-rotation player has give the Huskers some dangerous weapons in the back row for when the front line isn’t in a great position to hit.

“That’s something that we’ve worked really hard on, and that’s one of the advantages of having hitters who can do that,” Cook said. “If you sub your outside hitters out, you can’t do it so you’re trying to set somebody who’s not ready to hit. So if somebody tips in the middle of the court and everybody crashes in there, nobody’s going to get a really good approach. But the person in the back row, they’re just standing there waiting. So last year we set some with Kadie over there which was great and this year we have two outsides. That’s why it’s so valuable to find outside hitters that are true six-rotation players, because if you can’t pass, then you get subbed out and you have someone who can’t kill the ball.”

Cook could only rattle off six names off the top of his head of Big Ten players who are true six-rotation players, and the Huskers have two of them.

“The number is so small because we do this specialize thing,” Cook said. “That’s why we’re always trying to recruit six-rotation outsides if we can.”

Where Nebraska really shines, however, is on the defensive end. The Huskers are first in the conference in opponent hitting percentage at .183 and second in digs per set at 15.11. As the old sports cliche goes, defense wins championships.

“Serve, block and your floor defense, and understanding a game plan and making adjustments,” Cook said. “Every year if you look at who wins the Big Ten, whoever leads that, that’s one of the main correlations on who wins the Big Ten.”

The Huskers are doing this without a dominant block to this point as well as they are just seventh at 2.14 per set. What is even more important is the Huskers are defending at this level with Maloney, defensive specialist Sydney Townsend and outside hitter Mikaela Foecke all playing new or expanded roles in the back row. Cook said he expected nothing less, however.

“We knew that would be a strength of ours and we always talk about the back row has to win matches,” Cook said.

The second half of the season starts on Friday with a showdown in East Lansing against No. 10 Michigan State.

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