Nebraska got its offense going last week — hitting .391 in two matches — but the Huskers apparently left their defense on the road as they gave up .376 hitting to Wisconsin in a sweep on Saturday to open a four-match home stand.
“To recap last week, we had a good match at Rutgers and then I’m trying to figure out Saturday night,” Coach John Cook said. “To come up with an analogy for you guys because I know you guys are going to ask about it, just think Big 12 football: we gained 600 yards, Wisconsin gained 700 and they won. There’s an analogy for how that match went. Otherwise I can’t figure it out or explain it. All I know is we’ve got to finish. On to Michigans this week.”
The loss to Wisconsin dropped Nebraska from No. 2 to No. 5 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll, and the Badgers’ wins over the Huskers and Penn State vaulted them up from No. 13 to No. 7. Minnesota moved up one spot to No. 6, Penn State dropped from No. 5 to No. 8, Illinois moved up from No. 18 to No. 17 and Purdue dropped from No. 17 to No. 20. Michigan is among the other teams receiving votes.
Nebraska is going to have to find a way to get the defense back on track in a hurry as the conference’s top hitting team in Michigan (.289 on the season) will swing through Lincoln this weekend.
“We went through the video yesterday and neither team could stop each other,” Cook said about the Wisconsin match in which Nebraska hit .336 and lost. “We made a couple errors at the end, overpasses, missed serves, a hitting error here and there. We were on their tendencies, we were doing the right things, we were in the right spots. They just were better, their attackers were better than our defense. It was like a Big 12 football game. That night was going to be an offensive night.
“We probably won’t see any of those any more this year, so it was just a crazy night. We felt like we were on the right things, we just weren’t executing. Maybe we were a step slow because of three road matches and going to Rutgers Wednesday. I don’t know. I haven’t experienced that here before, so it’s all new territory for me. But we will get it figured out, or I’ll either fire myself or fire my staff, either way.”
After having a Wednesday-Saturday match schedule last week, Nebraska will have most of the week to itself to work on some things. The Huskers will play the Michigan State on Friday night then they’ll take on the Wolverines on Sunday afternoon.
“It gives us now a chance to train a little bit,” Cook said. “Last week was just trying to survive three road matches. You’re just trying to keep them sharp and fresh, that’s the key, and rested. This week we get back into a routine. Even though I don’t like Friday-Saturday as much for the athletes going back-to-back, but it does give you a week to really train and prepare and work on things. When you’ve got Wednesday-Saturday, again, you’ve got to do a balancing act a little bit more.”
A mid-week road trip to Rutgers limits what the Huskers are able to do in terms of practice time, but Cook won’t hold back at all this week.
“We’ve got to train hard this week,” Cook said. “We’ve got to take advantage of these weeks, because next week we play Purdue on a Wednesday. We have to take Monday off. So it will be a short week, and then we go to Maryland. This week will be a work week, next week will be more of a maintenance week.”
One area in which Nebraska needs to see significant improvement moving froward is from the service line. The Huskers are half an ace per set behind last season (1.1 compared to 1.6) and their ace-to-error ratio is down from .754 to .462.
“If I had to give a letter grade, we’re about a D+ and I want to be at at least an A,” Cook said.
The Huskers work on serving every day — it’s a staple of a John Cook program — but the results just haven’t been there to this point.
“It’s them and the ball, it’s all about confidence,” Cook said. “It’s nobody else, you don’t need a setter or passer or anything. It’s them and the ball. They’ve got to know that they can go up there and make something happen. Two of our six servers are freshmen, they’re trying to be good, tough servers, but you’re living on the edge. You try to serve as tough as you can and not make errors. It’s a tough deal.”
Both freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik and freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles have five aces and 20 errors so far this season. They replaced Mikaela Foecke (team-high .35 aces per set last season) and Kenzie Maloney (.28 aces per set, third on the team) in the rotation.
Nebraska has a handful of serves back from last year’s team, however, and they need to step it up as well. Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames isn’t too far off her pace from last year (.28 aces per set this year, .30 in 2019). Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun was at 0.29 aces per set and only had two more errors than aces, but this season she’s at eight aces (0.17 per set) and 22 errors. Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins is slightly behind her pace in aces per set from last year but her efficiency is up as she has seven aces and nine errors (a 0.778 ratio), compared to 25 aces and 41 errors (0.610) all of last season.
One player who has improved significantly is sophomore Megan Miller. She’s the only player not he team with more aces than errors (11 to 10) and her average is slightly up, from 0.21 aces per set to 0.23. Miller is the server for Nebraska’s best rotation so far this season. Aces and errors aren’t the best way to evaluate serving, but they get the point across in this case.
“Nicklin’s been pretty good, Lexi’s been good at times, Lauren’s better than last year, Megan Miller’s a notch up,” Cook said. “But those guys need to be. When you’ve got Dana Rettke over there [for Wisconsin], you’ve go to stress those teams. Everybody’s got a big stud that you’ve got to somehow stress them with serving.”
Nebraska didn’t put much stress on the Badgers on Saturday, finishing with no aces and 10 errors.
“We’re trying to be aggressive all the time, but we started off pretty good and then backed off, and then game three I think we made six errors,” Cook said. “Those are not aggressive serves; when you’re serving into the middle of the net, that’s not an aggressive serve … It’s focus, it’s not doing your routine, maybe you’re a little tight. I don’t know, it’s a mental error. It’s like shooting an airball on a free throw, it’s jumping offsides, all of the above, traveling. It’s one of those, just a mental error.”
The Huskers will host the Spartans on Friday for a 8 p.m. start time on BTN. First serve against Michigan on Sunday is set for 1 p.m. on ESPN2.
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.