After three weeks of preseason play, Stanford week has finally arrived for Nebraska. The Huskers have given each of their first seven opponents the attention they’ve deserved, but No. 1 Nebraska’s preparation for Wednesday’s rematch with the No. 2 Cardinal began back in preseason practice.
“I like the way we trained, and obviously you look at how we’ve been training the last few years, it’s been working well for us,” Coach John Cook said. “We’re always trying to make it better. So the lessons that we learned from the Stanford match, we started working on those things in two-a-days. We weren’t really preparing for anybody in two-a-days so our theme was ‘OK, here’s how big and physical Stanford is, how are we going to prepare for a team like this? How are we going to create our systems to go against a team like that?’ Because we’re going to see several teams like Stanford.”
In the wake of Penn State’s dominant run atop the sport, Cook propped the Nittany Lions up as an example of what his own program was striving to achieve. Now, that target is Stanford. Under Cook, the Huskers are always the hunters.
“Those are the teams that are playing for national championships, so you better be at that standard, that level,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. We haven’t changed our goals as far as I know. I just think you have to have a measuring stick of who you’re going against. I think in the NFL, it’s the New England Patriots. Everybody’s chasing those guys. I think there are probably a lot of teams chasing us. But we’ve got to be chasing somebody and have a standard to go against.”
One of the best things about college volleyball is that the Huskers get a chance to test themselves against those teams that are setting the standard. The Huskers are now in the same league as Penn State, and starting this year Nebraska will face Stanford in five straight seasons.
Between conference clashes and nonconference events, match-ups between top-10 teams seem to be more common in volleyball than other sports.
“I think first of all, the way the RPI is you’re rewarded for playing really good teams, so there’s motivation to play really good teams, I think,” Cook said. “Now, you also have to manage your win-loss record which is important, so there’s that balance. We’ve always tried to create great opportunities to have big matches on big stages. I was just thinking, in 2007 we played Penn State up in Omaha. I think it’s good for the sport, and having a nonconference season allows you to build some of those matches in there.
“The problem is going into the Big Ten, we’re also going to play a lot more Top 10 teams. You also have to figure out what can you handle, how many great teams can you play? There’s always a balance and then trying to get teams that will play is always a challenge too.”
Cook has a young team on his hands this year with two freshman starters and no seniors on the roster, but he’s not worried about throwing them into the fire against a team like the Cardinal.
“We’re going to be seeing this next week,” Cook said. “We go to Illinois and then Wisconsin comes here. This is a great opportunity for us.”
Hanging in Nebraska’s player lounge is a photo taken immediately after the final point of the national championship match. On one side of the net, Stanford is celebrating. On the other, the Huskers are gathering together, consoling each other and sharing their final moment on the court as a team.
“The point of that was to remind them how our season ended, but also the theme of that says We Over Me and that picture is us coming together,” Cook said. “It’s not about one player, it’s about a team.”
The Huskers are going to need a team effort to take down the Cardinal on Wednesday. Stanford is 16th in the country in hitting percentage at .298 led by two-time AVCA National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer, a senior outside hitter who is fourth in the country in kills per set at 5.5 on .350 hitting.
The Huskers will have to slow down Plummer, opposite hitter Audriana Fitzmorris (2.64 kills per set, .319 hitting) and middle blocker Madeleine Gates (2.09 kills per set, .327 hitting) to have a chance.
“There are three ways you do that,” Cook said. “You serve it tough and get them out of system. The second thing is your block’s got to slow it down. Third thing is your defense can’t let the ball hit the floor. Those three things, we have a chance to slow them down.”
Defensively, the Huskers have been pretty salty this season. Nebraska is fourth in the country in opponent hitting percentage at .138 despite working in two freshman back-row players, six-rotation outside hitter Madi Kubik and libero Kenzie Knuckles.
“I’m pleased with that,” Cook said. “But I also pointed out to them that the rotations that we’re strongest in are our three best servers, so we’ve got to get six great servers going so we can have six great rotations. That’s always a work in progress but it’s something that we build our team on, is serve, block and defense.”
First serve at the Devaney Center on Wednesday is set for 7 p.m. CT on BTN.
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.