Fresh off wins over Creighton and Iowa State, Coach John Cook took to the podium for his weekly Monday press conference to discuss the week that was and look ahead to the final weekend of the preseason.
“I felt pretty good about last week,” Cook said. “We had two really good matches against two good teams and I thought, obviously, as those matches went on we got better. We worked through nerves. We made jumps as a team in learning how to be in really competitive matches on big stages. We were on [ESPNU] yesterday and of course Thursday night was epic in Omaha, which I thought it would be. It was a good week for our development. This is kind of fine-tune week, this tournament, because we start the Big Ten next week.”
This tournament is the Nebraska Invite with Central Michigan, New Mexico and Missouri State coming to Lincoln to play at the Devaney Center on Friday and Saturday. Cook said he’s still in the process of “studying us,” but there is one phase of the game that he hopes to see the most improvement in before the Huskers enter the Big Ten gauntlet.
“The one area that I want to be at a higher level for sure is passing,” Cook said. “Iowa State stressed us yesterday, Creighton stressed us. I’ve got young passers back there, but we’ve got to pass better; I know that.”
One the other end of the spectrum, Cook has been impressed with his team’s defense through seven matches.
“The good news is, defensively, only one team has hit above .200 on us, so defensively we’re doing a really nice job,” Cook said. “That was Creighton that hit .207; if you take out game one for Creighton, and probably game two, they’re way below .200. So defensively we’re doing a nice job — we’re serving, blocking ad digging. But we’ve got to pass better so we can hit for a higher percentage and not have Nicklin [Hames] bump-setting all over the court.”
Last week was a rough one for ranked teams. Six of the teams in the top-10 suffered a loss including three from the Big Ten. As a result, the Huskers jumped up from No. 7 to No. 4 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll ahead of Penn State (No. 5), Wisconsin (No. 6) and Minnesota (No. 7). Illinois, sitting at 8-0, jumped from No. 11 to No. 8 and Creighton, who the Huskers beat in five sets on Thursday, moved up from 14 to 10 after beating Iowa State and Wichita State over the weekend.
“Look at college volleyball this weekend; it’s almost like a penalty being in the top 10,” Cook said. “You better show up; that’s what I've been telling these guys from day one trying to instill in our freshmen — you have got to show up every match, there are no gimmes, and especially in the Big Ten.”
Purdue is at No. 15 and Michigan rounds out the Big Ten representatives at No. 19. Sunday’s opponent, Iowa State, is still the top team among the others receiving votes.
One of the highlights of the weekend besides the wins and Sarah Pavan’s jersey retirement was the NCAA’s ruling that senior setter Brooke Smith was eligible to play. She checked in for the first time this season against Iowa State on Sunday and played in two sets, finishing with an assist.
“First of all, we got rid of the distraction — can she play, can she not play, is she going to get released, is she not going to get released?” Cook said. “That was kind of a dark cloud hanging over our team. But Brooke’s been doing a great job and then once she finally got released I think it’s like, OK, here’s a senior player who brings great energy, is all about the team, and now she feels like, ‘OK, I have value,’ now as opposed to, ‘I can’t play.’ Emotionally for our team and energy-wise, it was big.”
Smith’s debut leaves sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun as the only Husker who has not played in a match this season as she continues to work her way back from an undisclosed injury.
“We just keep cranking it up,” Cook said about Sun’s status. “She went through her first trash can [drill] on Saturday. She went through warm-ups yesterday, so this week we’ll push it more and see where she’s at.”
With the nonconference slate nearly complete, Cook spoke about the progress of his freshmen.
“Probably Capri [Davis] has done the most,” Cook said. “I think Megan Miller’s done a pretty solid job; statistically she’s pretty good. Callie [Schwarzenbach] is just on the verge of making a big break-through. I’m excited to see that happen. I think she’s still trying to get comfortable. And of course, Nicklin thrives in all this. But probably Capri’s made the biggest jump this past week.”
Schwarzenbach, the 6-foot-5 freshman middle blocker out of Kearney, Missouri, is leading the team in blocking but has yet to become a serious threat offensively. She’s seen more than nine sets come her way in a match just twice this season and is averaging just one kill per set.
“She has to trust her athleticism, get used to the sets and play with less fear,” Cook said. “There are big blocks over there. In high school, she can get away with it; in club, she can get away with it; now, there are players as big and physical as she is. She’s just got to understand that. We put her in those situations — in practice she’s been doing great; she’s got to transfer that into the games. That’s why I think she’s on the verge; I just feel like she’s ready to unleash a little bit.”
This weekend’s opponents have a combined record of 13-15 so far this season, but Cook isn’t taking anything for granted.
“What I learned this weekend is it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to show up,” Cook said. “I haven’t really studied those teams yet because I’m still working on us, but I know Missouri State last year had a great year. I think two years ago they beat Illinois and last year I think it went five right down to the wire. They’re playing some beach now; now we’re playing them in indoor so that’s cool. Central Michigan had some connections here; that’s why they wanted to come here. I’m not sure what they are, if they have players or whatever, but there’s some connection. New Mexico was a late addition; I can’t remember, somebody dropped out or whatever and it just kind of worked out that they could come up here. We were down there a few years ago in Albuquerque. Everybody’s tuning up for conference so it should be good volleyball.”
Nebraska will open tournament play against Central Michigan at noon on Friday. The Huskers will return to the Devaney to face New Mexico at 7:30 p.m. and then will wrap things up against Missouri State at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
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.