For the first time all season, Nebraska is not in first place in the Big Ten Standings following the Huskers’ loss to Ohio State on Sunday. Nebraska sits at 14-2 through eight weeks, one game back of the Buckeyes and Wisconsin with plenty to still play for.
“Week nine of the B1G, fired up,” Coach John Cook said on Tuesday. “It’s grind time. We had a great week last week — signed a great recruiting class, 300th sellout and we had a great match against Ohio State. Hopefully we’re going to build on that a little bit this week and have a great week and try to go into week 10.”
The Huskers fell to the Buckeyes in four sets in Columbus (after beating Ohio State in five in Lincoln earlier in the season), but Cook expressed more encouragement than disappointment during his post-match radio interview, a feeling he reiterated during Tuesday’s press conference.
“Ohio State played great,” Cook said. “[Emily] Londot beat us, their setter was great, they played at a really high level and we were right there with them. We had our chances. We played some of the best volleyball that we’ve played all year. Game one, that might have been better than a national championship-level match. It was insane volleyball. It’s hard to be disappointed. Of course, I look at it as ‘OK, we have a chance to get better now.’ If we come in and pout, you’ll see me get fired up in a different way. But we got a lot of teaching moments out of this match that we can teach from and our players have got to take advantage of that. I still think we can get better this time of year.”
Two of the big-picture areas the Ohio State match exposed are terminating (Cook said they need to kill more balls with how well they passed) and serving (they can’t afford the misses that happened at the worst times against the Buckeyes). He also said there are a lot of little things they’ll focus on.
“I think we know that this is the time of year where it comes down to the wire and we need to have that energy and we need to have that mindset that we’re going to take every point seriously and go at it with as much effort as we can and just come together as a team,” sophomore Ally Batenhorst mentioned as the main lesson she took from the loss.
The first set didn’t go the Huskers’ way (losing 31-29), but Batenhorst pointed to the third set (a 28-26 win) as another high point from the match.
“I think the third set, when we were kind of down and we knew that if we were not going to win this it was over, I think we kind of came together and just really had so much fire and energy for each point in the most crucial moments,” Batenhorst said. “I think the end of that game was really special.”
A passing breakdown played a big part in Nebraska’s first conference loss, to Wisconsin, but since then Cook said they’ve been passing even better than last season with the same group working in serve receive for the second straight year.
“The same people are passing — it’s basically three people are passing all of the passes,” Cook said. “They’ve worked well together. They’ve been together for two years now, so it’s really paying off for us. We’re passing well enough to win, to beat anybody.”
One area in which Cook wants to see improvement is the middle attack, especially with how well the team is passing. The standard he wants to see is at least 30% of the sets going to the middle, and the Huskers have fallen far short of that number overall this year.
“We just have to force it more,” Cook said. “We get too predictable. Madi [Kubik] had 60 sets and we’re in a 6-2; that should never happen,” Cook said. “Kaitlyn Hord and Bekka [Allick] did not have a high enough percentage in that Ohio State match. They have to trust it, and it’s a little more risky but we’ve just got to be better at it.”
The setters have had a particularly difficult time connecting with Hord all season long. The Penn State transfer averaged 2.92 kills per set on .394 hitting last season as a Nittany Lion, yet she’s at just 1.38 kills per set on .296 this year. Cook said the connection has been strong in practice with some highlight keels, but it hasn’t been consistent enough.
“It’s not just the setters all the time, it’s her spacing, it’s relationships, it’s going to the same spot every time,” Cook said. “We’ve just got to get better at it. Part of the problem of running a 6-2 is you have two different setters; that might create some hesitation because everybody’s different when they set, so part of it could be that. But we’re going to get her unleashed here at some point.”
The Huskers are running out of time to make that happen, though with four matches left to play in the Big Ten including tough matches for all three of the conference contenders, all of their their goals are still very much in front of them.
“Right now, it’s just win the next point,” Cook said. “They know what’s at stake. We’re still right there. Everybody’s playing everybody. The next 12 days, there are going to be a lot of big matches with a lot on the line. It’s great, and we’re in the thick of it.”
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.