No. 6 Nebraska is facing a slightly different schedule this week as the Huskers will wrap up their four-game home stand with a Wednesday match against Maryland and a Sunday afternoon meeting with Rutgers.
They Terrapins are having a strong season in the fourth year under coach Steve Aird. The former Penn State assistant coach took over at Maryland in 2014 and guided the Terps to a 37-60 record (12-48 in the Big Ten) during his first three seasons.
This year, however, Maryland is 16-10 and 5-9 heading into Wednesday night, already tying or eclipsing the previous highs under Aird. A strong finish would give Maryland its first season above .500 since 2012 when the team went 17-15.
“When he got hired there and the first time we went to Maryland, we all said, ‘OK, it’s only a matter of time.’ It’s a great place to recruit, it’s a great campus, they’ve got a nice gym and he’s an east coast guy. There’s tons of talent in the metro, DC or whatever you call that area. There always has been but none of them would go to Maryland because they were never any good. There are a lot of great athletes there and he has a few of them.”
As improved as the Terrapins have been, they are still well below .500 in conference play, and Cook said that is a reflection of how difficult it is to make ground in the Big Ten.
“That’s what makes this conference really hard,” Cook said. “Because they get better and Indiana’s going to get better — they’re building a new facility. It’s dog-eat-dog. You have to keep recruiting but it’s a good challenge.”
As for challenges, Cook expects one from Maryland on Wednesday night.
“They run a 6-2 and they’ve got a lot of big, physical hitters,” Cook said. “They have three jump-servers. So they’re a little bit different in what they do, and they’re very athletic.”
The Huskers could potentially be short-handed on the bench against the Terps as assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand’s wife Kristin is pregnant with a Wednesday due date.
“We’re just hoping she has it Thursday,” Cook said. “We’ll have a plan and see what happens.”
Nebraska’s second game this week was pushed back to Sunday to make room for the state volleyball tournament, marking the end of the high school season. However, there are still three more weeks of the regular season plus the postseason for Nebraska’s five true freshmen
“When you get to this time of year, they’re used to being done,” Cook said. “We have letter of intent [signing day] Wednesday for our ’18 class I think, and there’s only one left playing; they’re all finished. So I’m like, ‘Normally you guys are used to being finished this time of year; we’re really just getting started. This is the grind and the exciting part so you guys can’t check out. You’ve got to raise the tide.’”
“Raising the tide” is Cook’s theme for this freshman class. Some of them are playing big roles in the matches and some are reserves. However, Cook said they all play an important role.
“As I always tell them every day, they determine whether the tide is rising or the tide is lowering in practice,” Cook said. “If they come in and act like freshmen and can’t play and screw up drills and don’t raise the level, then our whole team’s going to sink. If they raise the level, then we go up. They’ve done a really good job of doing that; there’s only been a couple days where I thought they weren’t in there raising the level and putting heat on our other players.
“They’re a very tight-knit group. They finish sentences for each other. So we’ve been really pleased with that. They’re all athletic. Some of them are young and inexperienced, but they all work really hard and are really great recruits. I’ve been really, really happy.”
All five freshman have appeared in a match this season, which wasn’t originally the plan for Cook.
“Obviously Jazz [Sweet] is replacing a four-time All-American [in Kadie Rolfzen], so she’s had big shoes to fill. Hayley [Densberger] has obviously made a major contribution. We were planning on redshirting Chesney [McClellan] and Sam [Slaughter] and Anezka [Szabo], but early on we needed Anezka blocking down in Florida — we had a chance to win that; Hunter Atherton’s not a very big blocker so we brought her out — and Chesney had to go out when Bri [Holman] got hurt and they all ended up playing. Sami’s our third outside hitter right now. So they kind of have to grow up a little faster than maybe we had planned.”
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.