Coach John Cook’s young Huskers are currently going through a crash course in what it takes to win in the Big Ten. Nebraska suffered its fifth loss in conference play on Saturday with all five coming against top-10 teams in the span of three weeks.
Nebraska has shown that it is more than capable of playing with those teams as they’ve often gotten off to good starts. However, the Huskers haven’t been able to sustain winning volleyball for entire matches against top competition.
Through 12 conference matches, the Huskers are a combined 17-7 (70.8 percent) in sets one and three and are 11-13 (45.8 percent) in sets two, four and five. The Huskers are 0-2 in five-set matches this season.
“I think it’s focus on our side and understanding you can’t let up,” Cook said. “Some of those games we win easy game one so we think, ‘Oh, this is easy.’ That’s an immature team and we’re learning. It’s a process. You have to remember, half our team hasn’t been through this before. Everybody affects everybody and that affects practice and it affects our mindset going into games, it affects our mindset game day, practices, all those things and that’s what we’re trying to teach and get these guys to understand.”
One of those players that hasn’t been through the gauntlet that is the Big Ten is freshman setter Nicklin Hames. Despite her inexperience, Cook said Nebraska has to become her team if the Huskers are going to get out of the rut they’ve found themselves stuck in.
“She has to run the show,” Cook said. “I thought she played really hard and really well against Illinois. I mean, here’s a freshman getting four aces. She’s got to show that the team’s following her and she’s running the show and they’re playing hard for her and they’re getting to the ball and she’s putting hitters in good positions. She has to feel that, she can’t just be a rent-a-player out there. Look at the teams we’re losing to: [Illinois’ Jordyn] Poulter, is it her team? Hell yeah it’s her team. Sam [Seliger-Swenson]? It’s been her team for four years at Minnesota. Those guys, you can tell they’re in charge. Last year, Kelly [Hunter] was in charge. Nicklin’s got to get there and she’s making big steps.”
Nebraska’s hitters have been up-and-down this season and have been much higher-error in recent matches than they typically have been, and part of that has to do with the connection with Hames. Kelly Hunter set at a faster tempo last season, something Hames can’t quite match at this stage of her career.
“But you’ve got to remember, Kelly didn’t play her first two years,” Cook said. “I was talking to Chris Tamas and and I said to him, ‘I voted Jordyn [Poulter] MVP of the conference last year; I think she’s really good.’ He was telling me her freshman year she couldn’t locate anything. She was getting pounded on her freshman year. In fact, I don’t think they made the tournament one of those year. So put that in perspective, too.”
When discussing the responsibility Hames has to shoulder for this team, Cook did what he is often fond of doing: he made a football reference.
“I don’t think it’s any different than what Adrian Martinez has to do; it’s got to be his team too, at least when they’re on offense,” Cook said. “We recruited her because we thought she could do it and she wanted that challenge.”
Despite the recent results, Cook said he has seen a change for the better in Hames’ approach and overall play.
“In the last month, I think she’s made some huge progress,” Cook said. “I think before that she was just trying not to mess up. I’ve seen her mentality and how she’s interacting and just her confidence and her presence. She’s talking in the huddles, she’s talking on the court. She’s developing that; that’s just not something that you flip a switch and it happens, it’s a process.”
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.