LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook took the podium to discuss his top-ranked Huskers’ weekend at home that included wins over No. 3 Minnesota and No. 4 Wisconsin.
“This weekend was everything we thought it would be,” Cook said. “The level of competition was great. I thought our players rose up and played two great matches and it was electric in the Devaney; it might have been the loudest I’ve ever heard it yesterday. It was an awesome weekend in that regard and a lot of fun for our fans. They should have had a great time and they deserve a big shout-out for bringing it both nights.”
With the victories and a loss by Pen State, Nebraska earned all 64 first place votes in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll yet again and also took over the top spot in the RPI. In addition to improving Nebraska’s record to 18-1, this weekend should also have NCAA Tournament implications.
“It keeps us in the hunt because you want significant wins over teams that are also in position,” Cook said. “I think going in Wisconsin was No. 1 in the RPI, I don’t know if we were 2 or 3 or Minnesota was 2 and we were 3, but those are significant wins over top RPI teams. Texas is up there too. You want to have those wins because those are all the teams that are battling to host this regional. But we’ve got a lot of volleyball left to go and we have to get some more wins. The good thing is we have a lot of opportunities to do that … Right now, you could say the top four teams in the Big Ten could host regionals. That’s how strong these teams are.”
Cook said he and his staff learned a lot about his team during the five-set showdown against Minnesota.
“We learned that we’ve got players that can step up if other players are struggling. Kadie [Rolfzen] and Andie [Malloy] were struggling a little bit and the middles took over the match, so that was good,” Cook said. “We learned that defense is always something that is going to win you matches, and we held Minnesota who was hitting over .300 in the Big Ten to [.159] and we made plays when we needed to. Also, I think Minnesota is a very good defensive team and I think we got a little frustrated, so we’ve got to understand about how to make better shots and control that part of it and not swing into their block. I learned we can probably cover better; Minnesota is an excellent team in covering … There were a lot of takeaways but it was a great team win and I think that might be the biggest takeaway for our team is they know they can win matches as a team and not rely on one player carrying us.”
With 10 games in the books, the Huskers have reached the halfway point of the Big Ten schedule and Cook is happy with his team’s 9-1 league record.
“I’m really pleased coming through the first half of the Big Ten,” Cook said. “We’ve had a pretty tough first 10 matches and it doesn’t get much easier. We’ve got another tough second half, so it’s going to be another grind for five weeks. Our players are understanding the level of intensity and competition that we’re going to have to play every night in this conference because it is really tough this year.”
However, Cook said his team cannot afford to have any sort of let-down with Illinois and Northwestern coming to town on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
“About three in the morning, that’s what I was lying awake thinking about – how are we going to go on to the next phase of this?” Cook said. “Just like last year we lost both of these matches, it didn’t determine our season and winning them doesn’t determine how we finish out. That will be a big challenge this week.”
Cook said Nebraska has tried everything it can to convince Northwestern to move Saturday’s 6 p.m. game to earlier in the day to avoid a conflict with the 7 p.m. football game against Wisconsin, but because of the Wildcats’ travel schedule Northwestern will not accommodate the Huskers.
“We made the attempt, we worked at it, but I completely understand where Northwestern’s coming from. [The fans are] going to have to make choices so they can either all get iPads and watch the football game and be at the volleyball game, but we need them there and if they’re not going to make it, they can go on that Ticket Exchange and swap their tickets and give them to somebody that maybe has never been to a Nebraska volleyball game.”
Cook also praised senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes, who earned Big ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after setting a new school record with 35 digs against Minnesota.
“The whole weekend she was phenomenal,” Cook said. “Everybody asks ‘why?’ Well, her mom came into town. Her mom doesn’t get to see her very often. Her mom’s a teacher and it’s hard for her to get here. She’s very close with her mom; her mom’s the one that drug her to the beach when she was a little kid. I think she was very inspired; as we say, she had a very strong “why” to play well this weekend and her leadership on our side of the net and keeping us together was exceptional.”