Another week in the Big Ten brings another tough stretch for the No. 4 Nebraska volleyball team (13-3, 6-0) as the Huskers will play No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 16 Purdue with both matches coming on the road.
To this point, Nebraska has passed every test its faced in the Big Ten, but Coach John Cook said the Huskers are still a work in progress.
“The whole preseason is about trying to be good,” Cook said. “The Big Ten is trying to be great every night, which is really a big challenge to try to play at a high level every night. By the end of the season, late November and December, we want to try to be unstoppable. That’s when we want to really understand what we’re doing, we have all the coaches on the same page, all the team on the same page, these freshmen have now played a year in the Big Ten, so that’s where we want to try to be.”
Senior setter Kelly Hunter said the team has used some preseason doubt about the team from outside the program as motivation this season, and despite so many new players she’s been impressed by their teamwork.
“As a team, the thing that’s impressed me the most is how well we’re playing together and how well we’re playing point-by-point and just kind of focusing on going to the next point rather than errors that we’ve been making because I know in the past we’d kind of dwell on some errors and stuff like that,” Hunter said. “I just think our team chemistry and cohesion as a whole unit with the coaches and everyone on the staff and all of the players has been the most impressive so far.”
That being said, Cook said teamwork is also an area where the team can improve in the most.
“Our offense has been really simple and we’re going to start expanding that a little bit, and again, working together,” Cook said. “It’s time in the gym, it’s time playing. We’ve played some pretty clean matches but I think it’s still always developing.”
Expanding the offense will be important as Nebraska begins to play teams for the second time, and that starts on Wednesday night with No. 11 Wisconsin. The Huskers came back from an 0-2 hole to beat the Badgers in five sets in Lincoln on Sept. 30.
“They played really well the first two games,” Cook said. “We took a notch up and they came a notch down. But they played really well the first two games, I mean really good. We just had to weather the storm.”
The Huskers did so and now will have to try to beat the Badgers, who are riding a three-match losing streak, at their place just 11 days later.
“It’s kind of weird to play the same team so close together,” Hunter said. “Normally it’s a little more spread out. It’s kind of nice because we prepped so hard for them that week. Usually they haven’t really changed much by then, they’re not doing anything different with their system unless they take new players or something like that. It’s kind of good because we’re still prepped for them and we still kind of remember that match and adjustments we need to make.”
In addition to the last match being fresh in their minds, the Huskers will also have more time to prepare exclusively for the Badgers compared to round one where Nebraska played Minnesota on Friday and then had to turn around and play Wisconsin on Saturday.
“We have two days to prepare now, as opposed to you’re trying to prepare for them early in the week but you’re playing Minnesota in a huge match,” Cook said. “That took a lot of our focus. We have two days now to really work on Wisconsin and hopefully have a really good game plan and our players really understand it and can follow it.”
Hunter said Wisconsin had a lot of success serving its middle blockers – including 6-foot-8 freshman sensation Dana Rettke – in the first game and that will be a focus for the Huskers in round two.
“For us, it’s just coming out strong and serving tough and kind of shutting down their middle attack and then working with the pins from there,” Hunter said. “I think just mainly, we need to come out really strong, especially being on the road and they’re going to be fired up at home.”
Cook, who spent eight years as the coach at Wisconsin before returning to Lincoln, expects that his team will be walking into a tough environment on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
“It’s good. The Field House there is like the Coliseum here — it’s built in the ‘20s, it’s old, it used to be boxing in there,” Cook said. “They’ve cleaned it up a little bit and modernized it — they put a big scoreboard over the top. It’s just a great, classic, old venue. They built everything kind of going straight up. I don't know how safe it is, but the fans are on top of the court; that’s what makes it cool. I think they’ve actually had to close down the upper deck because it literally hangs over the court.”
Nebraska will close out the week with its 10th top-20 opponent in 18 games as it heads to Purdue to take on the Boilermakers on Saturday at 6 p.m.