Coach John Cook took to the podium for his first Monday press conference of the year following Nebraska’s 1-1 showing at the VERT Challenge this weekend and had mostly good things to say about what he saw from his young team.
Nebraska lost to then-No. 7 Florida 3-1 on Friday then followed it up with a sweep over No. 18 Oregon on Saturday.
The Huskers dropped to No. 5 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll while the Gators jumped to No. 4 and the Ducks stood pat at 18.
“We had a really challenging opening weekend and I was really pleased with how we made adjustments and improved from night one to night two,” Cook said. “Would have been fun to play Florida again on Sunday. That Oregon team was a team that beat us last year down in Florida in four, and pretty much it’s the same team minus one player. I felt pretty good about how we played against Oregon, beating them 3-0, so it was a really good bounce back for us. I think we’ve got something to build on now.”
“I think Florida played well; they should have won the tournament,” Cook continued. “I think we were nervous, made a lot of errors. The great thing is that I’m going to stress to them today is we had way more errors than we ever have had in a long time on Friday night but then Saturday night we come back and we had three players that had zero hitting errors. Really great adjustment by our team and fixing what we didn’t do well the first night. I’m really encouraged by that.”
Cook compared this year’s team to last year’s at this same point. The 2018 Huskers went 0-2 in the VERT Challenge with losses to the same teams they played this year.
“I just remember we were 0-2 but we had hope; I thought we did some good things,” Cook said. “I think this team showed maybe they’re ahead of last year’s team on this first weekend by coming back and beating Oregon. Last year we lost to Oregon in the first match, we lost to Florida in five. We’re trying to replace three All-Americans and Sydney Townsend who basically played almost every match for four years with, basically, we had four freshmen or three freshmen and Sam [Slaughter] who didn’t play last year. Those are some big shoes to fill but I think this group can do it and these young players came here knowing that they would have this opportunity and I think they’re embracing it. But there are going to be growing pains.”
Cook said the biggest advantage of taking on two top-25 opponents in the opening weekend is the experience it provided for the freshmen and sophomores.
“I think for our freshmen and Sam being out there, I think they realize the sense of urgency you have to have,” Cook said. “You have to take advantage of opportunities when you get them. When you get served two points, you better get the third serve in; after a challenge, missing a serve is going to cost us two or three points. I just think those teams make you pay when you make mistakes or you make mental errors. I think that’s the biggest thing that they learned from this weekend. We talked about it, but until you go through it, it’s a tough deal.”
Sophomore Jazz Sweet is caught somewhere in between being a veteran and still figuring things out as a young player. She started all last season at the opposite hitter spot and will be counted on for consistent production despite only having one year of collegiate playing experience under her belt. Sweet finished with 13 kills and four errors on 33 swings (.273 hitting) and followed it up with eight kills and five errors on 21 attempts (.143) this weekend.
“I thought Jazz played great in games three and four against Florida and I thought she rallied later in the game in some big points against Oregon, especially in game three,” Cook said. “I’d like to see Jazz play at a really high level from the first point, and that’s what I’ve got to talk to her about. I think she’s feeling her way in and she’s still feeling her way with Nicklin [Hames], her sets. We have to get her playing at a really high level because she can really cause teams problems and she can really help make our attack really strong.”
As for the other side of the court, Cook issued a clear message to his freshman (Capri Davis) and sophomore (Slaughter) battling for the second outside hitter spot. Both players saw action over the weekend.
“I’m making it really simple: whoever comes in and is aggressive and gets after it is going to play,” Cook said. “I saw them both be really tentative. Sam was tentative agains Florida; I brought Capri in, she was aggressive. I started Capri [against Oregon], she was tentative; I brought Sam in, she was aggressive. Whoever has the eye of the tiger is going to be out there; that will be the message to them today. Of course, they’ll probably have to go back and say ‘What’s the eye of the tiger?’ and then I’ll have to tell them about the Rocky Balboa movies and then they’ll be like ‘What? Who’s that?’ I’ll say ‘Well, get it on YouTube and check it out.’”
Another option at that spot long-term is Texas transfer Lexi Sun, but she remains on the shelf while recovering from injury.
“It depends on how she progresses this week,” Cook said about her status. “We’re going to amp it up this week and see how she responds. It’s kind of one of those deals — you just have to keep pushing it and pushing it but you can’t go too much. So that’s the delicate balance. We’ll just have to see. We have a plan today and she’s doing more today than she’s done all preseason so far.”
Cook said it’s probably “too ambitious” to expect her to get cleared for this weekend: “We’re erring on the side of caution.”
Speaking of this weekend, the Huskers are hosting another tournament at the Devaney Center, the annual Americas Players Challenge.
“This week we have a tournament, three matches and then the football game Saturday night,” Cook said. “That’s always a fun weekend for Husker sports fans, it’s a fun weekend for us, it gets people out of work on Friday to come to our match at 12 noon … It’s a little bit different but again, it’s a great sports weekend and I love it because I get to go to the football game without worrying about having to coach a match after the football game.”
Nebraska will take on Ohio at noon and Wake Forest at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and then will close out the event against Santa Clara on Saturday at 2 p.m.
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.