For the 2020-21 spring season, the start of Big Ten play marked the beginning of the season as the conference canceled all out-of-league competitions. This fall, with the return of the nonconference, the young Huskers will head into Big Ten play with nine matches under their belts already including four against top-20 opponents.
“I feel like I don’t even remember last year, like I feel like it literally didn’t happen,” junior outside hitter Madi Kubik said. “I feel like this preseason is about the length of last season, which is weird. I think it feels like we had an entire season in the amount that we had preseason, so it’s a lot different feel, way different.”
Including the postseason, Nebraska played just 19 matches all of last season, six of which were against ranked opponents (Minnesota and Ohio State twice each during the regular season, Baylor and Texas during the NCAA Tournament). This season, the 12th-ranked Huskers have already played a true road match, a “neutral site” match and seven matches in front of a packed Devaney Center.
The preseason included plenty of ups and downs as the Huskers sought to learn about the new version of themselves with the addition of the best recruiting class in the country and with Lauren Stivrins still on the shelf. After six straight wins to open the season, the Huskers dropped their last three matches, and after the loss to Louisville on Saturday, junior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles said the Huskers had a lot of hard conversations ahead of them.
According to Kubik, those conversations happened.
“I’d say just the last three matches, after that we kind of had a come to Jesus moment and we’re like, ‘OK, we can’t just be like hey, it’s a fluke, we’re Nebraska volleyball,’” Kubik said. “I think sometimes we get this thought of who we are, what our legacy is, but it’s like we haven’t done anything yet. We can’t be like, ‘Oh, this is who we are.’ We haven’t done anything. So I think just instilling a fire in us and instilling that accountability. We’re trying to hold each other really accountable.”
One way that increased accountability has taken shape is a set of consequences — which the players came up with entirely on their own — for mistakes made during practice, such as hitting into the net twice in a row. Those rules apply to everyone on the team, regardless of age or experience.
Kubik said the team focused this summer on fostering the kind of team camaraderie where they can have difficult conversations more freely, and it’s already paying off as they’ve been able to make changes on the fly smoothly.
That togetherness and team buy-in will become even more important moving forward as Coach John Cook cuts down his rotation and settles on a consistent starting lineup, something Kubik said should help the team iron out some of the struggles they’ve had thus far.
“I think it’s really helpful just because we played around with a lot of lineups in the preseason and I think role clarity is really good for our group just because you have a lot of young people, and obviously I guess for all parties, role clarity is a great thing,” Kubik said. “But I think it’s just going to help to start grooving that rotation and finding this place where we can like be really comfortable and know how to play next to each other so I think it’s good.”
Part of Cook’s lineup experimentation included putting Nebraska’s two veteran outside hitters, Kubik and senior Lexi Sun, on the bench and giving the three freshmen pin hitters a chance to show what they can do. Even when the pins haven’t been playing all the way around, Cook’s found a way to keep them involved as serving substitutes. Kubik in particular had some strong serving runs against Stanford off the bench.
“Obviously it’s a lot different, being in the groove of the game and then coming off the sideline to be in that role,” Kubik said. “But I think we have established a great amount of trust in our team of trusting each other and trusting we know what to expect out of each other so anyone can come in and feel confident knowing what their role is and how to do that well.”
Cook said identifying someone who can serve for the middle blockers is part of the process he’s gone through to solidify the lineup, so the opportunity will be there for the outside hitters and defensive specialists who don’t earn starting roles to still make an impact. Cook often says the six best servers will play.
“It’s really important,” Kubik said. “Coach always talks about how we win a match if we serve and pass better than a team, so there are six rotations we have opportunities to score and if only five are scoring, then we’re missing a rotation. We have to do all six. So it’s really important for people to come off the bench and serve well.”
After four weeks of nonconference play, the Big Ten has six teams ranked in the AVCA Coaches Poll plus a seventh receiving votes. In total, 12 teams head into league play with winning records. The extra season of eligibility granted to all college athletes has made things even more difficult in the Big Ten as 10 of the 13 seniors named to the All-Big Ten first and second teams last season opted to return to their teams for a super senior season, something that Kubik said didn’t surprise her.
“It’s going to obviously be very challenging,” Kubik said. “It’s going to be a great test for us. I think it’s going to push us to play well night in after night out and make us play at a really high level if we want to stay ranked high and compete in the Big Ten and just prepare us for what the end of the season looks like, because obviously then you have to win against a bunch of good teams right in a row.”
The Huskers will have a chance to get back on track this week as they ease into Big Ten play, opening against the only two teams currently below .500 in Northwestern and Iowa.
Nebraska will get things started on the road at Northwestern (5-6) on Wednesday. The Wildcats have been vulnerable defensively this season, allowing teams to hit .188 this season (13th among Big Ten teams). Offensively, Northwestern is hitting .247 led by All Big Ten outside hitter Semi Thomas-Ailara (3.6 kills per set on .237 hitting and 0.47 aces per set).
“She’s a big, physical hitter, but everybody in the Big Ten’s got somebody like that,” Cook said. “We just went against three really good hitters last three weeks, four counting Creighton. Everybody’s got a physical left side hitter, so it’s just part of the deal.”
Defensively, a familiar face leads the way as former Husker Megan Miller is averaging a team-best 3.36 digs per set as the team’s starting libero. Miller spent two seasons at Nebraska before transferring to Northwestern last season.
“We really miss her a lot,” Kubik said about facing her former teammate. “I don’t know, it’s going to be weird. We’ll see. I don’t know. It’ll probably just be like blowing kisses across the net the whole time.”
Kubik said the plan is to serve her tough and be wary of her serve coming back, because they know the ways she trains.
First serve on Wednesday is set for 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
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.