All season long, Nebraska has been playing two matches in the same location, mostly on back-to-back days. This week, that routine is being disrupted, and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Huskers according to Coach John Cook.
Coming off a five-set loss to Ohio State at home on Saturday, Nebraska will travel to Iowa City for a Wednesday match against the Hawkeyes before returning to Lincoln to host them at the Devaney Center on Saturday. Iowa is Nebraska’s designated home-and-home opponent to allow for an even split of scheduled home and road matches this season.
“We’re used to it in the Big Ten because we play several Wednesday-Saturday matches, so for us it’s good,” Cook said. “I actually think the change in routine will be good. I think it’s good we get to play right away after Saturday night’s loss instead of waiting all week. I think the players are going to be really excited to play and try to be better than we were Saturday. They get an opportunity tomorrow as opposed to waiting until Friday. I think it’s real positive this week.”
Cook turned up the intensity a bit in Monday’s practice to get ready for this week, and he said the players responded well.
“I think the mood was really good,” Cook said. “They went really hard. Because of the schedule this week, we went a little longer than we typically go on Mondays and I don’t think they wanted practice to end yesterday. I think they were having a good time and competing really hard and doing really well. It was a good response by our team; I was really, really pleased.”
Sophomore outside hitter Madi Kubik agreed that this week might feel closer to what the Huskers are used to from a routine and schedule standpoint.
“We haven’t come across that this season yet,” Kubik said. “It might even feel a little bit more normal because it’s kind of more like last season, I guess. I think just going into it and not underestimating anyone and knowing that everyone will play their best match against us and focusing on our side and just being able to do that consistently.”
Cook said the players are eager to get back on the court, but Wednesday’s game holds special significance for Kubik. She’s an Iowa native from West Des Moines, and her whole family is planning to attend the match including her grandparents. Kubik’s younger sister, Hayden, is a 2022 Husker commit.
Kubik is in her second season as Nebraska’s L2 pin hitter and has focused on making a bigger impact this season, and not just from a production standpoint.
“I’ve been working really, really hard on being external and working on stepping into a leadership role,” Kubik said. “I think Kenzie [Knuckles] and I last year, being the freshmen that played, we were just kind of trying to figure out how it worked and how we needed to contribute and be who we were on the court. I think this year, I’ve been able to step into a little more of a leadership role and get my feet under myself and just work towards that and being a great teammate.”
Kubik said she’s tried to be more vocal and encouraging for her teammates, particularly in the moments when co-captain Nicklin Hames and Lauren Stivrins aren’t on the court to take charge. To do that, she’s focused on strengthening her own mental game.
“I would say I’m honestly working more on mindset stuff,” Kubik said. “Coach always talks about trusting our training, so I think that’s like a huge thing that I try to go into the matches and think about. ‘OK, today I’m going to trust my training, I’ve worked really hard, I’ve put in all the reps.’ This last week we were well prepared to be able to play our best volleyball.”
Kubik said associate head coach Tyler Hildebrand has played a big part in helping her improve. He likes to use different key words to help players focus, and he personalizes them for each player.
“I think it’s a little bit different for each area of the game,” Kubik said about her own key words. “For passing, I generally go to ‘simple’ because I feel like when I’m playing that way normally there’s a better outcome. Serving, I try to take a deep breath. Coach always talks about having a serve routine is really important to be able to do that in the tough moments when it’s 13-13 in the fifth or whatever the time is. For attacking, I would say ‘edges.’ That’s something that we really worked on in the offseason, being able to manage and go edges when the ball isn’t perfect, when we’re not perfectly in system, and still score.”
As for Iowa, the Hawkeyes are just 3-11 this season. Iowa is running a 6-2 this season with junior Courtney Buzzerio (4.51 assists per set) and freshman Bailey Ortega (5.33) running the offense, and Buzzerio also leads the team with 2.58 kills per set, though she only hits .195. Sophomore outside hitter Edina Schmidt isn’t far behind at 2.49 kills per set on .136 hitting. Junior middle blocker Clayton Hannah chips in 2.05 kills per set on .367 hitting and 0.96 blocks per set. Iowa doesn’t excel in a lot of areas, but they are an aggressive serving team, sitting fifth in the Big Ten at 1.38 aces per set, narrowly ahead of the Huskers.
“Everybody in the Big Ten serves tough,” Cook said. “We train to play against the best servers and we do it every day. That’s something else that’s mental, we have to go in there and have confidence. Iowa’s a very good serving and passing team. It’s Big Ten, baby. You’ve got to bring it and we’ve got to do the same to them. It’s like a tug of war going back and forth, who can serve who tougher and who can pass better?”
First serve on Wednesday is set for 7 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network. Saturday’s match is scheduled for 6 p.m. on NET and BTN Plus.
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.