Fresh off a weekend sweep over then-No. 11 UCLA, John Cook took to the podium for his weekly Monday press conference to discuss the state of the Nebraska volleyball team (5-2).
Nebraska swept the Bruins late on Friday night then returned to the court on Saturday night and swept them again in the rare weekend series against the same team. The wins were enough for the Huskers to jump from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll.
“We’re pleased with the effort the team gave this weekend and I thought we played better the second night, which is tough to do playing against the same opponent two nights in a row,” Cook said.
The six sets included just 17 ties and eight lead changes with Nebraska leading wire-to-wire in the first set of both matches. UCLA only cracked 20 points in two of the six sets and didn’t score more than 21 in any of them.
“We played stretches of volleyball that were really clean,” Cook said. “We played almost perfect volleyball — stretches of five, six points at a time. That was what was most impressive; I haven’t seen that all year from us. That’s how you make big runs, when you’re doing that — ball-handling, passing, no errors, getting kills, making them pay.”
Senior setter Kelly Hunter played most of the first match and redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton did not play for the first time this season in the second match. In her most extensive action yet after returning form an offseason injury, Hunter had 44 assists in game one and followed it up with 31 assists and a team-high 14 digs in game two for her first double-double of the season.
“I was worried the second night that she would struggle a little bit, and I thought she was better the second night,” Cook said. “I think she got a lot of bugs out that first night and I was worried about her being a little fatigued but she was way more comfortable the second night.”
Hunter said the team will continue to monitor her status but that she feels pretty close to 100 percent at this point.
“It’s just kind of something that we have to keep watching, but I feel really good … I feel like I’m confident and that’s something Coach is really big on is confidence and if I feel strong, so I feel really good,” Hunter said.
Hunter’s performance earned her Big Ten Setter of the Week honors as she guided the Nebraska offense to a .301 hitting percentage.
Hunter said the team can use this weekend as a confidence boost as conference play draws near.
“Coach said it’s the most fun he’s seen us have in a long time so that obviously gave us a big confidence boost,” Hunter said. “But to beat the same team twice in a row, I think we know how hard that is, especially a ranked team as good as UCLA, so I think that gave us a lot of confidence just as a collective group.”
Cook said Nebraska has come a long way from the first weekend that saw the Huskers drop a pair of matches to top-20 teams.
“I just know the feeling of where it was two weeks ago in Florida to where it is now, it’s a whole different feel,” Cook said. “Like ‘Are we ever going to win a match?’ to ‘OK, we just played some really good volleyball.’ That’s the exciting thing, because they’ve been working really hard. They’re training really hard. Every day they come in and go hard, so it’s good to see that transfer on the court.”
The Huskers will hit the road again this weekend but they won’t have far to go as they make the short drive up I-80 to play in the Omaha Challenge. The Huskers will open play with Kansas State on Friday at 4:30 p.m., then take on a Northern Iowa team receiving votes in the AVCA poll at noon on Saturday. They wrap up the tournament against Nebraska-Omaha at 7:30 p.m.
Cook expanded on how the Huskers became a part of Omaha’s tournament.
“A year-and-a-half ago I was at a club tournament and [Omaha athletic director] Trev Albert’s daughter was playing there,” Cook said. “I sat next to him — he was the only guy wearing a three-piece suit at the tournament — and we just started talking volleyball; he had his world opened up to club volleyball, so we started talking about the new arena and I said ‘Well, when Creighton opened their new arena we went up there and played so maybe we ought to think about coming up there and playing.’ Kelly Hunter’s from Papillion so we always like to go to our seniors’ home towns as much as we can. So I thought ‘why not?’ They put together a good tournament; it’s going to be a tough tournament. I have not been to Baxter Arena; I’m excited to see it. I hear it’s a great venue and they have a volleyball floor in there, so they did it right. We’ll be excited to play in Nebraska and at UNO.”
Cook said Nebraska’s participation in the event will be a great experience for both the team and the fans.
“It reminds me in the spring when we go out to western Nebraska and play in these towns,” Cook said. “It’s a whole different vibe. People are really appreciative of us coming there. This will give people a chance in Omaha that maybe don’t have season tickets here to see us play and of course see UNO play as well. It’s always fun and we get treated really well. We’re looking forward to it and I think it will be special for our players, especially the Nebraska players.”
Hunter backed up what Cook had to say.
“It’s always cool to play in Nebraska but not at Devaney because I think we get a different crowd and maybe a different group of people that don’t get to come every time,” Hunter said. “That’s why we love going out west for spring. It’s always fun. I know my parents bought a whole bunch of tickets; we have a lot of family coming in. For me personally it’s pretty fun, but I know all of the girls just love playing in Nebraska in front of a big crowd.”
In addition to serving, which is always a focus, the one thing Cook hopes to see his team improve as the Huskers wrap up non-conference play this weekend and look ahead to the Big Ten is the connection between the setter and the middle blockers.
“We still have stuff to work on — that’s the coaching cliché — but I just think we’re getting a little more settled on what our lineup is and what we want to do,” Cook said. “I think [we need to] continue to build on that and see if we can continue to be consistent. We want to continue to develop our middle attack to be just a force you have to deal with. That takes time; Kelly’s only really set it for two days. That’s going to take time — that’s a timing thing and a trust thing and I saw a lot of examples where we missed and stuff like that.”
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.