Coach John Cook often says the ante goes up each week in the Big Ten. This week, however, it’s all-in time as the sixth-raked Huskers will hit the road to take on No. 7 Minnesota (20-4, 14-2 Big Ten) and No. 5 Wisconsin (19-5, 15-1).
Winning both matches would put the Huskers in the driver’s seat to win at least a share of the Big Ten title. There’s a lot on the line, but Cook said the Huskers have still kept it pretty loose in practice.
“They’re having plenty of fun, but they’re going really hard and we’re making it very intense and hard on them and challenging for them,” Cook said after practice on Wednesday. “We did a couple drills today that were really challenging. We’re trying to raise the level of intensity and how they have to perform to win a drill, but also they’re having fun. They always have fun. It drives me nuts; they get a little too loose for me.”
Nebraska is 9-1 away from the Devaney Center this season with the lone loss at top-20 Purdue. The Huskers played in front of a sizable crowd at Illinois earlier this season, but freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles said the Huskers haven’t played in front of an away crowd quite like what she's expecting from both matches this weekend.
“I think we embrace it,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said about playing on the road. “You’re not going to have your home crowd cheering for you and you kind of have to bring your own energy. I think when you win on the road, it’s a really good team win because you have to put in a little more effort and a little more heart.”
For just the second time the season and first on the road, Nebraska will have a buffer day in between matches as Nebraska plays Minnesota on Friday night and Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon. The Big Ten uses primarily Wednesday-Saturday or Friday-Saturday schedules.
“I think it’s going to be nice having that little break between because I remember last year when we made this road trip, we got done at Wisconsin at like 11:30 and then didn’t even get to Minnesota until like 1 or 2 a.m., and so it was hard bouncing back the next day and playing Minnesota because they’re both really good teams,” Hames said. “Having that day in between, you kind of get to reset before you play the next game and kind of recover, so that will be nice.”
Cook wasn’t as enthusiastic about it at first, but after learning the Huskers would be able to get into the gym to practice on Saturday night he said he feels a lot better about it. The Huskers will leave Minnesota around noon on Saturday and will practice at Wisconsin at 6 p.m.
The Badgers took down the Golden Gophers in four sets in Minneapolis last Thursday, and Cook said that match is a valuable scouting tool. However, he also said Nebraska is very familiar with both teams anyway.
Minnesota has a lot of talent an experience at the hitter positions and will pose a difficult test for Nebraska’s defense.
“They’ve got some elite attackers,” Cook said. “Taylor Morgan, [Stephanie] Samedy, Alexis Hart, those guys have been playing forever … They’re a handful. They run a very fast offense so they try to beat you with speed and power and athleticism and they do a really good job of it. They’re always a handful and a great challenge.”
Despite all the familiar faces at the attacking positions, this year’s Minnesota team is quite a bit different from last year’s without Samantha Seliger-Swenson running the offense. Kylie Miller, the starting setter at the beginning of the season, has been dealing with a medical issue and Minnesota has used two setters in her place recently, sophomore Bayley McMenimen and freshman Tamara Dolonga.
“They’re much different; it’s not even a comparison,” Cook said. “Sam was really good, really good. Those two, their job is just to get hittable balls for six really good hitters. They’re doing a good job too, but Sam was the show.”
Sunday’s meeting between the Huskers and Badgers will be the second this season as Wisconsin swept Nebraska in Lincoln back on Oct. 5 while hitting .376. The Huskers have won 11 of 12 since that match.
“I think we’ve really developed in all of the aspects of it,” Hames said. “Last time it was a pretty close game but they ended up sweeping us. Our defense has gotten a lot better since then and I think that’s where we struggled against them.”
The Huskers went toe-to-toe with the Badgers, hitting .336 themselves, but Nebraska struggled late in each of the sets.
“Last time we played Wisconsin we were doing pretty well defensively throughout the whole match and then it would be like 20-20 and they would make a five-point run and we would make errors after we were in the 20s … We’ve been doing a lot better with that so I think that’s really key for us,” Knuckles said. “That was one of the reasons that Wisconsin went badly.”
The Badgers have only dropped one match in conference play to an Ohio State team that is 14-14 overall and 7-9 in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes had 10 service aces in that match. Nebraska has struggled somewhat at the service line this season and improving in that area is something Cook has emphasized as the Huskers get ready for the postseason. It will be a key this weekend as well.
“I think serve and pass is really key for us, just really getting that under our belts,” Knuckles said. “When we have a really good serve and pass game, the game goes really well for us.”
First serve on Friday is set for 8 p.m. Sunday's match is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Both matches will be televised by BTN.
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.