After nine long weeks, Nebraska has finally reached the final round of Big Ten games. Sitting tied with Penn State atop the Big Ten Standings at 17-1 and at No. 5 in the AVCA Coaches Poll at 24-4 overall, Nebraska can secure at least a share of the Big Ten title this weekend.
The No. 1 Nittany Lions (27-1 with a home loss to the Huskers) will face No. 11 Wisconsin on Friday and No. 8 Minnesota on Saturday while Nebraska will see a pair of unranked foes in Northwestern on Wednesday and Iowa on Saturday.
“I’m just fired up,” Coach John Cook said. “We’re in a position to play for a lot this week and our team’s done a nice job of getting to this point. Now we’ve got to finish. That’s going to be our theme this week.”
Senior setter Kelly Hunter admitted the Huskers might do a little bit of scoreboard watching, but at the same time they have to focus on handling their business.
“Obviously we’re kind of hoping that they don’t win at least one of their matches, but we have to win our next two, too,” Hunter said. “We’re obviously focused on ourself. We play Wednesday-Saturday; it’s a different schedule for us and we’ve played that a couple times this year, but none of that matters if we don’t win our two matches. We’re not really focused on the past or the future, so we’re kind of just playing one match at a time. Right now, we have two days to focus on Northwestern and then we’ll have a day off and two more days to focus on Iowa. That’s kind of where we’re looking at.”
The Big Ten title has come down to one match in each of the last three years, and with two teams tied at 17-1, that will be the case in 2017 as well.
“I think that obviously just shows how intense the Big Ten is and it’s literally coming down to probably the last night if everything works out for us,” Hunter said. “I’ve just got to say it really shows how tough the Big Ten is and it shows how much you have to be on every single night because on any night, anyone can beat anyone. We’ve seen some crazy upsets this year and some other tough games. It’s pretty typical that it comes down to the end.”
With three All-Americans moving on from last year’s Big Ten champion and eight new players, few — if any — outside the program expected Nebraska to be right back where it was last season, but their success has come as no surprise to the Huskers themselves.
“We kind of knew we were going to surprise people; that was our thing was ‘Why not us?’ We knew maybe people were going to say it was a rebuilding year for us, stuff like that,” Hunter said. “Our whole goal this year was to take it one match at a time and surprise people and I think we’ve done that. Obviously we have a great conference record and a shot to win the Big Ten title. Not everyone would have expected that and I’m sure not everyone on the team would have said ‘Yeah, we’re going to win the Big Ten this year.’
“I think it’s really cool what we’ve done as a unit and as a group. Coach says it, everyone on the team says it, this year we’re ‘With each other, for each other,’ and I think that’s what has set us apart from a lot of other teams is our team chemistry and kind of our fight out there.”
Nebraska will travel to Northwestern on Wednesday, but Saturday is a home match and will be Nebraska’s Senior Day. “Point by point” is the program motto, but Cook said the Huskers will need to be even more locked in than usual this week with all the distractions that come along with a special week.
“We’re going to work on that this week," Cook said. “Senior Night’s always a tough night because they get really distracted with all the families coming in and all that. Fortunately we do [senior speeches] after the match. That’s something we’ve got to talk about this week, because our focus has to be laser-like.”
Hunter got a chance to watch her high school teammates, Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, deliver their speeches last year. Thanks to a redshirt year, hers was delayed a year but is finally here.
“It’s already the last week and it’s crazy to say that just thinking about everything that’s coming up,” Hunter said. “I think everyone’s fired up but senior week is always a good week because the younger girls are fired up for the seniors. It’s really weird being a senior because normally I’m used to being fired up for the older girls.”
As for her speech, Hunter said she still doesn’t have any idea what she's going to say. Neither of her sisters have taken her up on a $50 offer to write the speech for her.
“I thought about it for like half a second and then I stopped because I have no clue what I’m going to say and it’s kind of nerve-wracking to think about,” Hunter said. “I don’t know. I’ll definitely have to plan that one. Normally I just go on a whim, but I’m going to have to plan that. There are five of us so hopefully it will go kind of quick. We’ll see.”
Regardless of what she says, Hunter is counting on getting a little emotional on Saturday night.
Hunter will be honored along with defensive specialist Sydney Townsend, outside hitter Annika Albrecht, middle blocker Briana Holman and middle blocker Allie Havers at the Senior Night ceremony.
Cook had a great deal of praise for the leadership shown by the senior class.
“Awesome, awesome,” Cook said. “I’m not even looking at how they did this fall; it all started in the summer. That’s when those seniors took charge of this team. They’ve done a fantastic job, and they’re seeing the results.”
The class includes a transfer from LSU, a couple of local players, the daughter of two Nebraska alumni and a former basketball player, and Cook said he’s proud of how far they’ve all come.
“That’s why you coach,” Cook said. “It’s about seeing people come in make the journey and work hard to be great and max out everything they have and keep this program one of the best programs in the country. It’s very rewarding… It’s like when your kids grow up, same thing; it’s no different. You spend a lot of time, so there’s a lot of investment that goes into all this. It’s cool.”
Wednesday’s match in Evanston is set for 7 p.m. on BTN Plus. Saturday’s match will also begin at 7 p.m. and will be televised on NET.
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.