Nebraska suffered just its second loss of the season on Saturday as the Minnesota Golden Gophers came into Lincoln and took the Huskers down in four sets.
“We learned some lessons Saturday night so hopefully we’re going to come in this week and get better because, as you can see, in the Big Ten it’s a tough night every match and we have two more tough opponents this week heading into a big road swing,” Coach John Cook said. “We’ve got to dial it up a little bit and hopefully we can learn a little bit from the Minnesota match. Minnesota played really well.”
Following the weekend’s results, the Huskers (now No. 5) and Gophers (No. 3) traded places in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll. Wisconsin also dropped from sixth to eighth after dropping a five-set match to Iowa on Saturday.
The Huskers only hit .194 against the Gophers, settling for tips or soft shots time and time again. The Huskers struggled to handle the ball well enough to run their offense efficiently all match long.
“That’s probably the key is we were not attacking like we needed to,” Cook said. “That’s ball-handling, that’s putting the ball in a situation where we can take a swing and when you give them easy balls, they’ve got some dynamic hitters that are hard to stop one-on-one. You can’t give them easy balls. They were giving us easy balls but we weren’t making them pay. They made us pay and that was the difference in the two teams.”
Minnesota hit .280, the highest percentage of any team that has faced Nebraska this season.
“I think you guys ought to interview Jaylen [Reyes],” Cook joked. “I think he might be happy he’s still got a job because I saw the Oklahoma defensive coordinator’s gone after giving up a lot of points to Texas. If somebody hits .280 on us, we’re taking big notice of that and we’ve got to take that personally.”
Reyes replaced Tyler Hildebrand over the offseason on Cook’s staff and is in charge of coordinating the team’s defense.
Ball-handling has been something of a work in progress all season as the Huskers have worked to replace some key back-row contributors from last season’s title team, namely Annika Albrecht, Kelly Hunter and Sydney Townsend. Lexi Sun and Nicklin Hames are newcomers while sophomore Hayley Densberger is filling an expanded role after playing mostly as a serving specialist as a freshman.
“Coaching this team this year makes me appreciate players like Anni,” Cook said. “Those guys are so valuable, they’re such great passers and ball-handlers. But we’re working hard at it and we’re getting better at it. But we didn’t ball-handle real well against Minnesota.”
At this point, senior libero Kenzie Maloney is grading out as the best passer on the team by far and everyone else is pretty even behind her, with ups and downs depending on the match.
The Huskers were riding a 14-match winning streak heading into the top-five showdown with the Gophers but Nebraska looked like anything but a title contender on Saturday. That being said, the team is still 14-2 and has a chance to get back on track on Wednesday with a home match against Indiana.
“They’re playing at a really high level, but I thought we could play at as high of a level as they’ve been playing, and we have in spurts,” Cook said. “It’s a long season, it’s one match and like I told the team, you’ve got to have a short memory. We’ve got Indiana who has beat Ohio State and went five with Michigan and went five with Illinois. They’re on a rejuvenation kick right now so it’s going to be another tough match on Wednesday.”
Wednesday’s match is set for a 7 p.m. start on BTN. After that, Nebraska will hit the road for four straight matches starting with a trip to No. 9 Penn State on Saturday. That match will also start at 7 p.m. on BTN. Cook said he hasn’t turned his attention to the Nittany Lions yet and won’t until after the Indiana match, but he knows what to expect from that program.
“They’re Penn State, they have the No. 1 recruiting class, they’re starting a lot of freshmen,” Cook said. “They’re very talented.”
This is Nebraska’s second straight week with matches on Wednesday and Saturday after opening Big Ten play with a Friday-Saturday schedule. From a travel, recovery and preparation standpoint, splitting the matches makes sense, but Cook’s mind is split because of what it means for in-season development.
“I would rather get in and train for three days and then play Friday-Saturday,” Cook said. “I’m a big proponent for Wednesday-Saturday, but man, it’s hard to train your team hard because you’ve got two matches spread out, so it’s always a juggling act. I can go either way on it.”
Finally, the NCAA transfer rule changes will go into effect on Oct. 15. Starting on that day, players who wish to transfer will no longer have to ask for a scholarship release from their coach. Instead, they’ll enter their name into a national database and will be free to talk with other programs. Cook had several thoughts about the change.
“I don’t know how we’ll deal with it, and I don’t know how many volleyball players in the middle of the season will start putting their names in,” Cook said. “It will be interesting. What I still don’t have clarification on is if, say, somebody puts their name in, what do you do? Because you can’t take their scholarship. We’re waiting for clarification on that. So somebody can put their name in, shop around, see what they get and decide to stay, I guess. I don't know what power the coaches or the athletic departments have; we haven’t been told that. Hopefully we’ll hear before October 15.
“But to me, like what Scott [Frost] is saying, if somebody wants to leave, great, get ‘em out of here, but we have to be able to use their scholarship. In the past, when players leave in the middle of the year, you can’t use their scholarship until next year, and that’s been tough because it puts all the power on the student athletes and gives you nothing against that. We want people that want to be here and love Nebraska … I think that’s what it’s all about — you’ve got to love this place, you’ve got to love your team, you’ve got to love your program, you’ve got to love playing in the Big Ten. If you don’t it will eat you up.”
Once the database goes live, Nebraska will have an account and assistant coach Kayla Banwarth, who coordinates the team’s recruiting efforts, will be in charge of monitoring it.
“It will be interesting to see,” Cook said. “These are uncharted waters. But the transfer thing has been wild and it’s getting wilder, probably, as you can see with football and of course basketball.”
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.