2018 NCAA Volleyball Final Four Preview
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Grueling Schedule Has Posed Practice Challenges for Nebraska

October 29, 2018

One thing Nebraska is known for is its football sellout streak, currently sitting at 366, but the football team isn’t the only one on campus who draws that kind of fan support. 

This weekend, the volleyball team will pass a milestone of its own with 250 straight sellouts for its home matches. John Cook arrived in Lincoln in 2000 to take over as head volleyball coach of the Huskers, and he liked to do part of his workout routine inside Memorial Stadium. While running stairs on the stadium every day, the sellout streak display continued to catch his eye, and it gave him an idea.

Why couldn’t his program do the same thing?

“I challenged our fans like ‘Why don’t we start a sellout streak in volleyball?’ That was in 2001 and Huskers fans have come through,” Cook said. “I was really nervous when we moved to Devaney that we would have a hard time keeping that. Coach [Tom] Osborne, I only wanted 6,000 seats in Devaney, he made it 8,000 and I was worried like ‘OK, there’s no way we’re going to keep this.’ Now, maybe we should have made it bigger. Our fans are awesome. That’s an impressive streak; nothing else in women’s sports in the NCAA comes even close in any sport, any time, anywhere. There’s no place like Nebraska.”

This weekend, the Huskers will host Penn State on Friday and Rutgers on Saturday.

The Huskers are coming off a 1-1 week, giving them five losses in their last seven matches (more losses than they had all year in each of the last three seasons). All five losses have come against top-10 teams, however, and the Huskers will get another one this weekend with the Nittany Lions, who dropped from No. 4 to No. 7 in this week's AVCA Coaches Poll after losing to Purdue for the first time since 1982.

Minnesota held steady at No. 3 while Illinois jumped from No. 6 to No. 4 after beating the Huskers in Lincoln. Wisconsin jumoed from No. 7 to No. 5 and the Huskers moved up one spot from No. 9 to No. 8 despite the loss to the Illini thanks to Pittsburgh's loss to Duke that dropped it from No. 5 to No. 10.

Cook mentioned after Saturday’s four-set loss to Illinois that the Huskers have to be more aggressive in terms of the way they attack opposing teams, but with the schedule they’ve been facing recently it has been difficult to find the time to really work on getting that fixed.

“We drill it in practice, we train it in practice, we compete — they don’t get out of the drill until they find a way out,” Cook said. “But the problem has been the last, pretty much, three weeks with our schedule, we’ve had very few training days where we could train hard because I’ve just been trying to maintain them and keep them fresh for matches. After I watched the video against Illinois, it was a great match. Illinois played great, but they’re coming off three home matches and we’re coming off four road matches in 10 days, so I think there was a little fatigue with us. That’s the fluke of the Big Ten schedule. There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages depending on what schedule you have. So it’s been really hard to train. We’ll get a chance to train some this week and work on that.”

Nebraska has Friday-Saturday matches at home this week rather than the Wednesday-Saturday schedule they’ve seen in three of the last four weeks, and that should provide an opportunity to get back in the gym. Cook said his list of things to focus on this week spans two full pages.

“Probably the top of the list would be doing what we’re trained to do,” Cook said. “There are a lot of areas — maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s stress, maybe it’s who they’re playing — but we’re not doing things that we’re trained to do, we’re not trusting our training. We’ve got to go back to that.”

That fundamentals-focused practice style is something that Cook developed based on previous experiences.

“A lot of coaches think towards the end of the season you just go in and tune them up and play, but we work on fundamentals every day,” Cook said. “I learned that lesson when I was here as an assistant watching Coach Osborne and the football team train. Every day they’re working on footwork, fundamentals, movement. They break it down every day. Every day we break down our fundamentals. When I was at Wisconsin, I took a team to Russia, our first international trip to Russia. We started off playing great and then towards the end we were awful because we weren’t training fundamentals every day. Part of the problem is we try to do it every day, but when you lose training time and you’re just trying to survive, competing with your schedule, you lose some of that fundamentals. So we’ve got to go back to fundamentals.”

The daily challenge for Cook is figuring out the proper balance between hard practices focused on improvement and taking it easy to save their legs for the matches.

“I lay awake at night trying to decide how hard to push, what to do, how hard to train, how hard to push somebody and challenge them in practice, how hard to push the team,” Cook said. “It’s such a delicate balance … I talk to our captains, I talk to our strength coach, I go with what my gut says, I look at what we’ve done the last three, four years, I look back at our practices — what we did, how we did — so there’s a real art to that.”

Cook said each week is a new challenge in its own right as far as determining what ways to push the players mentally and physically based on the previous week’s results.

What’s it going to take for the Huskers to get out of this rut?

“I just think [it will take] a big win,” Cook said. “We’ve got to win. Winning fixes a lot of things. Look at our football team — it’s just a whole different vibe after they’ve won a couple games now. Just being around them, I was down there at practice this morning a little bit. It’s a whole different vibe. Winning fixes a lot of things, losing puts a lot of doubt, but this group needs to be resilient, they need to be tough, they’re going to have to push through this and so it’s a great challenge. I’m personally looking forward to the challenge. We haven’t had this challenge in the least three years. We’ve basically been trying not to screw up winning a Big Ten championship and now this is a new territory, especially for our seniors.”

At 7-5 in the conference, the Huskers are tied with Michigan in sixth place in the Big Ten. Minnesota is all alone in first place with a perfect 12-0 record.

“I’m excited for this challenge and how to get this team to learn how to win close games because we’ve been in every match, we’re still the best defensive team in the conference, we’ve just got to make better decisions at critical times and that comes from experience,” Cook said. “It’s youth, it’s a lot of new people out there and new situations, and we’ve been playing a very tough schedule. We’re playing Final Four matches. Illinois was  a Final Four-Level match, last week was. It’s pretty impressive in how hard we’ve had to play and the level of play.”

Friday will provide the Huskers with another big opportunity to get that win they need when the Nittany Lions come to town. Penn State beat the Huskers in five sets at University Park on Oct. 13. First serve is set for 7 p.m. on BTN. The Rutgers match on Saturday, also schedule for a 7 p.m. start, will be televised on NET.

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