LINCOLN, Neb. – No. 1 Nebraska went 2-0 over the weekend to wrap up a four-game home stand, but the story of the weekend was that the Huskers won the second game without the services of All-American libero Justine Wong-Orantes.
Wong-Orantes took a hard shot to the face late in the third set of Friday’s sweep over Illinois, but she finished out the match. Coach John Cook said the senior got a headache later that night, and Cook held her out of Saturday’s sweep against Northwestern.
With Wong-Orantes sidelined, Cook had to shake up his rotation.
“Kenzie [Maloney] went in for Justine at libero, so that’s a significant change for her and then Sydney [Townsend] took Kenzie’s spot … and Brooke [Smith] took Sydney’s spot as a serving sub … I thought they did a great job. They were very confident and acted like they’d been there before.”
Cook said they obviously missed an Al-American talent like Wong-Orantes, but they didn’t really change anything defensively with Maloney at that spot and according to Cook, she “did a great job.”
“She’ll be our libero next year,” Cook said. “We recruited her; it’s not very often liberos get full scholarships, and we recruited her and gave her a full scholarship right out because we think she has a chance to be great.”
Maloney finished with nine digs and an assists, and also took advantage of her increased opportunities at the service line with an ace.
Cook said he didn’t realize how bad of a hit Wong-Orantes took until watching the film.
“It happens all the time, but when I watched it on video she was trying to get out of the way but the ball was rising, so she couldn’t get out of the way,” Cook said. “I think if that was a normal hit, it would have glanced off of her … After I saw it on video, it was a lot more of a violent hit.”
Wong-Orantes’ status is still up in the air.
>> Last season, the Huskers suffered a pair of back-to-back midseason losses that seemed to galvanize them as they went on to run the table and win the national championship. Will this year’s team be able to maintain its intensity and high level of play without experiencing a weekend like that?
“We’ll find out,” Cook said. “I don’t know. I can’t predict that; I don’t know. I just know the things I talk to them about and we’ve been talking about since January, which is trying to do something that’s never been done before, we’re trying to go from good to great to unstoppable, and they’ve got to focus on the process of coming in and getting better every day. I met with a couple of them this morning and talked to them this morning about the mindset that they need to have every day in practice. That’s the challenge this time of year is mentally, can you stay in the grind and continue to get better? Because you’re either going to get better or you’re going to get worse every day right now.”
Cook said he’ll be able to see any slippage in practice long before it shows up in a match. Last year, that disastrous weekend cost them a chance to win the Big Ten, which is one of the team’s primary goals this year.
After spending the last two weekends in the friendly confines of the Devaney Center, the Huskers will hit the road again to take on Penn State on Friday and Rutgers on Saturday.
“It’s our last Friday-Saturday in the Big Ten, so we have to go in there and get it done,” Cook said.
What is the key to winning on the road?
“I think sometimes you go on the road, you can prepare longer,” Cook said. “We don’t have school; we have time to watch more video, it’s more focused, we have less distractions, and we stay in our routine so those are the keys I think to having a chance to play well on the road.”
The weekend will present an interesting dichotomy in venues, as Penn State is annually one of the most difficult road environments in the country while Rutgers is 0-8 at home this season and 4-21 overall.
“We just stress communication,” Cook said. “Penn State will be loud. Rutgers will be the opposite. That’s going to be another mental challenge to go there with no environment. Just communicating and staying on the moment, one point at a time; really, nothing different.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.