The young Huskers are currently going through a crash course in what it takes to compete in the best volleyball conference in the country, and Coach John Cook is trying to be patient in the midst of the team’s struggles.
“I’ve got to be patient with our young players; I probably haven’t done the best job with [them] because I expect a lot of them,” Cook said. “The thing that I’m least patient with is that sometimes we don’t attack in everything that we’re doing; we just play it safe with roll shots, we don’t take swings, we serve easy, we serve in the net, things like that. Give up a run of points. That’s playing soft. I’m trying to get these guys to play in attack mode.
“Last year’s team was really good at that, but again that’s a confidence thing, that’s an experience thing, that’s being through it. We’ve got a freshman setter who’s playing at Penn State over 5,000, we got to Wisconsin and it’s sold out, we got to Minnesota, sold out and it’s on TV … Got to be patient there. She’s getting better.”
Nebraska struggled mightily to terminate against the Badgers on Wednesday, hitting at .087 in the four-set loss which is the lowest percentage for the Huskers since Cook took over the program. Nebraska rebounded on Saturday against Minnesota in a five-set loss, hitting .210, but they struggled in late-game situations.
Freshman setter Nicklin Hames has had a brilliant start to her career but has still been fairly up-and-down, especially in the Big Ten.
“She’s played like a freshman but I think she’s figuring it out and she’s getting better,” Cook said. “I thought [against] Minnesota she did a nice job. Minnesota’s playing really well. They’ve got a great setter [in four-year starter Samantha Seliger-Swenson] and we’re the only team to take sets off of them and we probably played them tougher at their place than we did at our place. It shows me we’re making progress.”
Hames did a great job of connecting with her middle blockers against the Gophers — something that has been a bit of a struggle this season — but Nebraska's second and third attacking options behind senior Mikaela Foecke, sophomores Lexi Sun and Jazz Sweet, combined to hit .000 on 156 attempts this weekend with 37 kills and 37 errors.
“Lexi’s in a whole new role,” Cook said. “She played front row last year. She’s trying to develop into an all-around player. There’s a lot more mentally that goes on with that. I don’t know what Jazz’s deal is. Part of it is she had a great setter last year so hitters get confidence off that. She’s got to continue working on getting a rhythm with Nicklin. Jazz is blocking really, really well. She’s putting up great numbers blocking — she’s probably one of our best efficiency blockers on our team night in and night out — so she’s doing some really nice things there. It’s juts we’ve got to get her attack going.”
Cook said a lot of their errors came from Sweet and Sun not sticking with their training when the action picks up against top competition.
“For Lexi and Jazz, it’s understanding what they have and what they don’t have and knowing who’s on the other side,” Cook said. “So if you get an inside tight set against [6-foot-8 Wisconsin middle blocker Dana] Rettke, you don’t swing away as hard as you can; that’s just dumb volleyball. Lexi, for example, has gotten away with that and in this conference you don’t get away with that, so she’s learning you can’t hit that.
“It’s a tough conference, there are a lot of good players. They’re going against the best and they’ve got to learn those situations. You look at some of these other hitters with more experience — Foecke — they have a better understanding of how to get kills, when to swing and when not to swing, and again if you’re going to attack, then you’re doing something to put pressure on them and not just give them an easy ball.”
Even in the midst of Nebraska’s recent struggles, Cook is focused on the end game and getting his team ready to make a run by the time the postseason rolls around.
“It doesn’t phase me one way or the other … I know that we got dealt the toughest schedule we’ve ever had in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “Last year, we played these guys but we played them all at home. We started at Penn State then played Minnesota-Wisconsin-Michigan State at home all in eight days or two weeks. This has been on the road and we’ve got a young team and a new team. Last year I was surprised we swept all four of those; this year I’m not surprised that we lost three in a row because it’s very easy to do.”
Despite ranking inside the top 10 in the AVCA Coaches Poll every week of the season to this point, Cook said the Huskers still have a long way to go if it wants to compete with the conference’s and — nation’s — elite.
“I’ve been telling you guys we are a work in progress,” Cook said. “We are not a national championship level team, starting this year or right now. Now, by the end of the year, we might be, and we’ve shown at times — we’re throttling teams in games, throttling good teams, top teams: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State. We’ve shown we can play at a really high level. We just have to put it together for a long time.”
Cook said he hasn’t seen anything from his team that leads him to believe finding that consistency is an unattainable goal.
“Otherwise I’d just cancel practice and go hit golf balls.”
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.