Nebraska didn’t knock off Big-Ten leading Wisconsin over the weekend, but the Huskers did get a split from their toughest road trip of the season by taking down Minnesota in Minneapolis on Friday night.
“I think any time you can get a split playing two top-10 teams back-to-back on the road is a good weekend,” Coach John Cook said. “Obviously we would have liked to have beat Wisconsin, but they played really well. I learned that was our first loss in November since 2016, so really proud about that and it’s something that I told our team. Especially for our young players, they’ve got a really good feel now of the level we’ve got to go to this week and next week going into the tournament. But we’ve got to take care of business this week.”
The Huskers had won 25 straight November matches dating back to Nov. 23, 2016, a five-set loss at Minnesota. Nebraska’s streak almost ended in Minneapolis again on Friday night as the Nebraska gave up a 2-0 lead and get demolished in the fourth set.
However, junior middle blocker and co-captain Lauren Stivrins gathered her team together before the fifth set and delivered an impassioned message to her teammates. The Huskers responded and dominated the fifth set, winning 15-3.
Cook said he hasn’t seen a player do something like that very often.
“I saw Kelly Hunter do it,” Cook said. “I think the really good leaders do it. I think Lauren is an emotional player, an emotionally leader and she was talking from her heart. I watched the fifth game last night on the TV version and you could just see our team was glued to her. That’s something I want to show her because I think that should really validate all the work that she’s done, and these guys believe in her.”
Nebraska lost two great leaders in Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney last season, and finding their successors was a priority for Cook heading into the offseason. He identified Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames early and empowered them to take on a leadership role, even before he formally named them captains. Friday night showed what Cook saw in Stivrins.
“That’s why we started investing in this in January,” Cook said. “I still think she as a whole other level of leadership, both her and Nicklin, that will continue to develop. These are the moments and the times when they get to work on that skill of being a great leader.”
Based on her background, her personality and the nature of her position, Hames becoming a captain was no surprise. Stivrins was a different story early in her career as she redshirted as a freshman and certainly didn’t show Cook any leadership traits at that point.
“I was hoping she wouldn’t get kicked off the team,” Cook said. “Kelly was the same way, Kelly Hunter. It just takes them a while to adjust and grow up. I don’t want the leaders that are goodie-two-shoes and straight-A students; you’ve got to have the norm, that can relate to everybody. I’ve seen that in Lauren, that’s why we chose to develop her as a leader and a captain.”
Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin put the Huskers two matches back of Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings with two matches to play with two of Nebraska’s three losses coming to the Badgers. A conference title is all but out of reach with the Badgers playing Rutgers to close out the season, but Cook said Nebraska still has a lot to play for this weekend against Maryland and Ohio State.
“If you can’t finish first, let’s finish second,” Cook said. “There are going to be some big matches at Penn State, there are big matches here. Ohio State beat Wisconsin, so we’ve got to deal with that. We want to finish strong and we want to go into the tournament. I don’t know where we’re at in the RPI or however they decide who does what, but we want to try to host the first and second rounds.”
Penn State is one match up on Nebraska at 16-2 in conference play but the Nittany Lions will host both Minnesota and Wisconsin this weekend.
Once again, this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll includes seven Big Ten teams including four in the top eight, though there was a bit of shuffling this week.
The Huskers held their spot at No. 6 as did the Badgers a No. 5, although Wisconsin did earn a first-place vote this week. Penn State is No. 7 and Minnesota is No. 8 after they switched spots following the Gophers’ loss to Nebraska.
Purdue (No. 16), Michigan (No. 22) and Illinois (No. 24) each moved up one spot from where they were ranked last week. As usual, the Big ten is looking strong with postseason play approaching.
“I know there are a lot of good teams but there is probably kind of a separation point,” Cook said. “I haven’t studied enough, their nonconference or whatever, how that will shake out. But I know this: Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin — I don’t know if I’d want to play any of those teams if I was in the NCAA Tournament. And there are some other ones in there: Illinois, even though they’re not up in the top three or four there, Ohio State beat Wisconsin and lost to Minnesota 17-15 in the fifth, and then you’ve got Michigan, and look out for those guys. There’s a whole group of teams that I don’t think anybody’s going to want to play, or they’re going to be dreading having them in their draw.
“It’s the Big Ten, this conference prepares us for everything and anything. You’ve got to be tough to survive this conference because you have to learn how to play on the road in tough environments and you’ve got to perform against great teams and you’ve got to do it every week.”
Texas dropped from the top of the poll down to No. 4 after losing to Baylor, and the Bears leapfrogged ahead of Pittsburgh to claim the No. 1 spot. Stanford is up to No. 3 from No. 4 last week. Creighton moved up two spots to No. 10 after claiming its sixth straight Big East title over the weekend. San Diego remained at No. 20 while UCLA jumped back into the poll at No. 23.
The Huskers are also sitting at No. 6 in the latest RPI release. Cook is looking for a strong close to the season so that Nebraska is in a position of strength heading into the postseason, not only for his own team but for the student section as well.
“We want to host the first and second rounds because I want to buy that student section tickets or pizza or whatever else they want because they’ve been awesome this year,” Cook said. “Tweet that, put that out. I’m hoping we get it so I get to do something for those guys because they’ve been awesome this year.”
Typically, the final week of the regular season brings with it senior day. However, this year is a bit different for Cook and his program as there isn’t a single senior on the 2019 roster. That doesn’t mean the staff won’t have a little extra to do this week, however.
“I think we’re going to have like 18 recruits here,” Cook said. “I was looking forward to it maybe being nice and relaxing without dealing with [a senior day], but we’re going to have tons of recruits. It’ll be fun. But it will be interesting; I don’t even know if we’ll recognize — maybe a manager, one of our guys. That’ll be weird. [Director of volleyball operations] Lindsay [Peterson] had a baby so she’s been out, so that’s good too because she has to organize all that. The biggest problem for our senior night is getting the family enough tickets … That’s the biggest stress for senior night here at Nebraska.
“That’s why we say there’s no place like Nebraska.”
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.