A 2-0 weekend including a sweep over the No. 2 team in the country was enough to get Nebraska back into the top 10 as the Huskers rose from No. 14 to No. 8 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll.
The Huskers swept Penn State at Rec Hall on Friday to open Big Ten play then followed it up with a sweep at Rutgers on Saturday.
"It’s the opening match of the Big Ten at Penn State; it probably doesn’t get much tougher than that and I thought our team just played really consistent, solid volleyball,” Coach John Cook said. “We played really well at the end of games so we put together a really good match. It’s a great win; I don’t think they’ve been swept there for 14 years. The key was they really played consistent and played at a high level and we really had very few drop-offs.”
Cook said he was a little surprised by just how well his team played, but he was probably more surprised that senior middle blocker Briana Holman was able to go following a sprained ankle suffered during the previous weekend. Cook talked to her prior to the match to determine her status.
“It was more of how she was feeling, it was a discussion with our trainer, does she think she can go for a four- or five-game match, how she felt and kind of just all that stuff,” Cook said.
Holman said she was good to go and turned in a 13-kill-on-16-swings performance against the Nittany Lions.
“She did a nice job and she showed some toughness, because I didn’t think there was anyway she could play based on six days before that,” Cook said.
Cook expected to have to play true freshman Chesney McClellan, but adrenaline got Holman all the way through the match.
McClellan got her chance the following day at Rutgers, however, as Cook rested Holman and called on his highly-touted true freshman to hold it down in the middle alongside Lauren Stivrins. McClellan converted seven of her 13 swings into kills with just one error and also recorded three blocks against the Scarlet Knights.
“She did great,” Cook said. “Didn’t look like a freshman, played really well, Kelly set her in a lot of different situations — she has a lot of confidence setting here — and Chesney followed the game plan great. She did really well. She did a nice job.”
Winning at Penn State will always draw attention, and the conference took note of what the Huskers did as two players picked up weekly Big Ten awards on Monday.
Senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht continued her strong all-around play with a huge performance against the Nittany Lions, finishing with a match-high 19 kills on .400 hitting, and that was enough to earn her first Big Ten Player of the Week honor. In two matches, the senior co-captain averaged 5.2 kills and 1.7 digs per set while hitting .379.
“Anni just is playing her role really well, which is a true six-rotation player,” Cook said. “She’s doing everything well for us. Teams tend to let her go a little bit and she’s making them pay. The biggest thing that you guys notice is her number of kills but she’s really managing the game well and she was able to get some big kills out of system for us and all the other things that she does. She’s a fun player to watch.”
Albrecht’s fellow team captain was the other Husker recognized as senior setter Kelly Hunter picked up her seventh career Big Ten Setter of the Week Award. She averaged 12.3 sets while hitting .615 and guided the Huskers to a .359 hitting percentage in the two wins.
“I thought she played really loose and confident and stuck to our game plan really well both matches,” Cook said. “She played good defense, she blocked really well, served really well. She was just a complete player. Like I said, she’s just going to continue to get better and better every week.”
The schedule won’t get any easier this coming weekend as No. 3 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin come to Lincoln. Friday’s match in particular will be a special night for the program as the Huskers are set to retire Jordan Larson’s jersey between the second and third sets.
“Jordan’s one of the great sports heroes in the state and we talk about Nebraska volleyball being a state treasure, and she’s one of the jewels of that treasure, being a small-town — Hooper, Nebraska, one stoplight town, her mom coached her, they drug her to the gym when her mom and dad played volleyball,” Cook said. “She told me in eighth grade that she wanted to be a Husker and wanted to be an Olympian, so here’s somebody that really is symbolic of the theme dreaming big or dreaming bigger.
“She’s gone on to have a great two Olympics, professional career, she’s made a lot of money and has performed at the highest stage of volleyball in this world, with the Olympics, the world championships. the World Cup, and professionally and her teams have won world championships in club volleyball. We don’t know a lot about that here in the U.S., but essentially it’ the NFL, NBA in Europe. She’s been an MVP of that and won that, so she’s done about everything except win a gold medal. In addition to that, she’s an awesome, awesome girl.”
Cook shared one of his favorite memories of coaching Larson.
“Probably the best story was at the  Washington regional,” Cook said. “We made that huge comeback in game five [against the Huskies] and Jordan’s going back to serve. We just had a super-long rally, we’re exhausted, and I’m telling Jordan ‘don’t jump serve; don’t jump serve; just float it in,” because I thought if she misses that thing, it just gives them all the momentum, and she just never even looked at me. She just walked back and grabbed the ball because she knew that’s what I was going to tell her; she didn’t even look at me and of course served an ace.”
Cook was also asked about the message from President Hank Bounds and Chancellor Ronnie Green sent to the athletic department about the importance of competing and the tweet Bounds sent after Nebraska’s win at Penn State.
— Hank M. Bounds (@hankbounds) September 23, 2017
“It’s a great mindset to have,” Cook said. “We try to have that at Nebraska volleyball. We have no excuses and we’re trying to be the best we can be all the time. That’s something that hopefully is engrained in our DNA at Nebraska volleyball. It’s part of the deal. I’ve always said when I moved here from California, and everybody said ‘why’d you leave California — the Pac-12 or Pac-10’s the best volleyball conference, all the best players are in California.’ I watched USC play yesterday and there were probably 100 people in the stands. I tell everybody, and especially people we recruit from California for example … If I’m going to work that hard, I want to be somewhere where it’s important and people care. That’s what the chancellor’s saying: he cares, and it’s important here. We want to have success.”