Coach John Cook has been preparing his team for this weekend for a long time, and after a difficult non-conference schedule that included quite a bit of adversity, the No. 14 Huskers are set to begin Big Ten play.
“I started telling them in the beginning of the summer when the schedule came out,” Cook said. “We finally got the schedule finalized, and I told them it’s going to be a heck of a start. That’s why we had M.O.A.S. [Mother of All Summers] … The bottom-line is we have to have this mindset every week for the next 10 weeks.”
Nebraska opens conference play with three of the top five teams in the country beginning with a trip to No. 2 Penn State on Friday.
“It’s the opening of the Big Ten and Penn State’s going to be fired up, so we better go in there loose and go for it,” Cook said. “We know what the mindset is we have to have on the road at a place like that. These guys know what it’s going to take.”
At least some of them do, however, as less than half the team has ever played at Penn State. Cook said team captains Kelly Hunter and Annika Albrecht have been holding players only meetings every Monday before practice and have passed down what it takes to win in conference.
“They’ve had meetings about, it’s the Big Ten now, it’s a new season the grind starts — 20 matches, 10 weeks,” Cook said.
Junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke has had some of the best performances of her career against the Nittany Lions. What is her advice for the team’s freshmen taking on Penn State for the first time?
“Just give it all you’ve got,” Foecke said. “Leave it all on the court. We really have nothing to lose — we’re going into their home gym, they’re ranked No. 2, so they’re the ones with a target on their back. We just have to go in and get after it.”
Nebraska has won five straight matches against Penn State included a five-set victory last season in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals in which Nebraska came back from a 0-2 hole.
“We’ve been able to figure out how to beat them and out-last them, and that usually is what it is with Penn State — you’ve got to outlast them. they’re tough, they’re physical, they bring it,” Cook said. “This is a new year and we’re going to have to play great.”
Nebraska could be without middle blocker Briana Holman who sprained her ankle in Nebraska’s last match of the previous weekend. Cook said he does not know whether or not she will be able to play and that they’re taking it "day-by-day.”
“She practiced a little bit today, but there are certain things she can’t do yet,” Cook said. “But at least she’s back in the gym, so that’s good. She’s way farther ahead than what we thought she would be … We’re not going to push it because I don’t want this thing to nag the whole season. Sometimes you come back too early and then you have an injury for the whole season.”
If Holman cannot go, true freshman Chesney McClellan should get the call. McClellan is the one who replaced Holman last weekend against Omaha after Holman left the match. It was McClellan’s first appearance in a match, but Cook said she has been preparing to play if needed all season.
“She’s clicked from day one,” Cook said. “She’s got a great personality, fits in great, and she’s gotten better this week because she’s had to and she’s been forced to. She’s always training with the first group — we always have three middles training, three outsides training. She’s had to up it.”
First serve at Rec Hall on Friday is set for 7 p.m. and the match will be televised on BTN. After that, the Huskers will head to Rutgers on Saturday for a 6 p.m. match. The Scarlet Knights are 1-59 in conference play since joining the Big Ten.
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.