The biggest news to come out of John Cook’s weekly press conference on Monday is that he’s already identified a lineup he plans to stick with going forward (though he wasn’t interested in sharing what that lineup is just yet).
The lineup was in flux throughout the nonconference, especially at the outside hitter positions. Cook gave nearly everyone a chance to play in Nebraska’s first nine matches, sometimes searching for the hot hand, sometimes sticking with a group through struggles. The latter method is the one Cook is planning to go with moving forward as the Huskers open Big Ten play on Wednesday.
“Just because they’ve got to learn to work through that,” Cook said. “We’ve got to develop a core group, so that’s our next step. I gave you the quote. They’ve got to bond … Just trying to get a core group going and then a couple subs going and figure out who serves for our middles.”
Cook called it “a mystery” why none of his outside hitters have been able to settle in and play at a consistently high level, but improving the team’s offense is a major focus.
“Keep training, find three that want to do it,” Cook said. “Part of it is setting, part of it is timing, it’s rhythm, it’s confidence, it’s a lot of things. So, something’s got to work itself out.”
True freshmen struggling somewhat as they transition to college volleyball shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, but the Huskers also have two veteran starts in Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik who are hitting well below last season’s level despite playing with the same setter for the last three years. Cook pointed to a tempo change as a possible reason for part of the struggles.
“We’re trying to speed up the offense a little bit and there’s growing pains with that, so that’s part of it,” Cook said. “They’ve got to learn how to manage that and do it better and Nicklin’s got to learn how to set it better. So it’s a process and we knew doing that would might slow us down a little bit.”
During Nebraska’s 3-0 loss against No. 5 Louisville on Saturday, the Huskers held a 17-16 lead in each of the last two sets. In game 2, Louisville hit Nebraska with a 5-0 run. In game three, it was 7-0 including five straight Nebraska attack errors at one point. Late-game issues propped up against Utah as well as the Huskers had a chance to sweep the Utes but couldn’t finish it off, then saw Utah make the big plays in game five to win it.
“In volleyball, basically it’s going to come down probably to an outside hitter making a big kill or somebody making a great serve,” Cook said. “Somebody’s got to make plays, just like any other sport. And what we talk about is they’ve got to trust their training when it matters most. And that’s a hard thing because there’s doubts, there’s fears, there’s whatever. Do they want it, and are they willing to go for it and not get soft?
“Our trend has been we get soft at the end of games, and that’s not just this year, that’s been the last couple of years. And so we’ve got to find a way and there are some ways we can try to instill that in practice, which we’ll start working on a little bit more.”
The Huskers are going to toughen up in order to accomplish their goals, because the Big Ten looks as tough as ever. Including the Huskers, six teams from the conference appear in the latest AVCA Coaches poll with a seventh receiving votes. Making the league even more difficult this season s the number of seniors that opted to return for an extra season of eligibility. In total, 22 of the 49 seniors listed on Big Ten rosters in the spring are back with their teams for the fall 2021 season. That includes the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in Minnesota outside hitter Stephanie Samedy and a four-time first-team AVCA All-American in Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke.
“I thought Samedy would go pro; she’s ready to go pro,” Cook said. “I thought Rettke would go pro, but for whatever reason they didn’t. I don’t know, I don’t talk to them or haven’t talked to the coaches about it. So I’m surprised some of those guys didn’t because they could be making money right now. So those are surprising, but some of the other ones, why not?”
Though the Huskers have two super seniors of their own in Sun and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who continues to work her way back into playing shape following offseason back surgery, Cook said the number of returners across the conferences “absolutely” raises the difficulty level even more.
“They’re more experienced,” Cook said. “I mean, we’ve got 18-year-olds going against 22-, 23-year-olds. That’s a big difference.”
Stivrins practiced some again on Monday, rotating in on the B-side. Once she is cleared to play, it would add to an already deep position at middle blocker. Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach have handled the majority of the playing time, but sophomore Kalynn Meyer has gotten a few chances to get on the court, including on Saturday against Louisville.
Caffey took a shot to the face late in the first set trying to block a ball, and Cook called Meyer’s number to start the second set. She had two kills on four swings and two block assists before Caffey returned to finish the match.
“I thought she was great,” Cook said. “She did great. She brought energy. She’s a competitor.”
Besides Stivrins, freshman middle blocker Rylee Gray is the only Husker who hasn’t played yet this season. Cook said she’s simply not ready to play won’t be in there until she is, though he declined to say thatch is definitively redshirting this season.
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.