No. 5 Nebraska opened the delayed 2020-21 season with a pair of wins at Indiana last weekend. The Huskers showed some rust early but got stronger as the weekend went on, hitting .268 while holding the Hoosiers to .089.
“We played really well in spurts, but we were playing in spurts,” Coach John Cook said. “At times we played really well, and we were a little inconsistent. Maybe that’s to be expected the first weekend. If you look at it statistically we did a nice job at Indiana. It’s a better team than they were last year and statistically we looked pretty good and did some nice things. But we needed to feel a little bit better and get in a better rhythm. It starts with passing and serving and ball-handling, and it all goes from there.”
This year’s schedule provides a different set of challenges than a normal season would with back-to-back matches against the same team every weekend. That puts more pressure on coaches to make adjustments from one match to the next, and the players need to be able to act on the changes their coaches make. The Indiana series was Nebraska’s first experience with that.
“It went like I thought,” Cook said. “Both teams hit a lower percentage the second night because both teams were dialed in more. The serving, they had a little better plan on how they wanted to serve. They made adjustments, we made adjustments, and I just think that’s how it’s going to be. The great ones adjust and we’re constantly preaching that and working on that.
“Then there’s the mental part of it too; how do you approach it mentally? I think if you lose the first night, maybe there’s more aggressiveness, more of a go-for-it attitude, and if you win maybe you’re protecting it a little bit. We’ve got to approach each night like we’ve got to get better and try to play our best. You can’t worry about the last match, only worry about the next point.”
Cook said the road trip wasn’t too different than it normally would be outside of the team having to wake up at 7:30 a.m. to take a COVID-19 test and wear masks on the buses and plane.
Nebraska won’t have to deal with road trip protocol this week, however, as the Huskers are set to make their home debut on Friday against Northwestern, even if 8,000 fans won’t be there to welcome them.
“It will for sure be different than normal, not having that many fans,” sophomore outside hitter Riley Zuhn said. “But it’s still nice to play at home and it’s awesome because we get to train in Devaney, so it’s awesome to play matches on the same court we get to practice on. I’m still excited to play at home. It’s still a home-court advantage and it will be nice to be able to have our families here at least, even though we can’t have a lot of fans.”
Cook and his team won’t have to think too much about what the environment will be like at the Devaney Center this weekend — they see it every day in practice.
“I can visualize it because it will be like a practice, nobody in there and I don’t even know what the pre-game stuff is and introductions,” Cook said. “Indiana was very vanilla and ‘here are six starters, let’s go.’ I don’t know what our people have planned, but it will be nice to play at home. Northwestern is going to be a great challenge for us, so we’ll have to see if we can get better this week. But I think our players have adapted pretty well to what it’s going to be like and I think having a few parents here will be helpful. We actually had a lot of parents at Indiana which was surprising to me.”
Northwestern (picked 10th in the preseason Big Ten poll) swept Rutgers (picked last) twice last weekend to open the season 2.0. Sophomore outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, a 2019 All-Big Ten Second Team selection, led the way with 4.83 kills per set on .404 hitting. Senior outside hitter Nia Robinson, second on the team in kills last season, did not play against the Scarlet Knights but sophomore outside hitter Abryanna Cannon and senior middle blocker Alana Walker both hit over .400 for the weekend.
“I think they’re one of the most improved teams in the conference,” Cook said. “They were playing really well at the end of last year. They’ve got maybe the most dynamic outside hitter in the conference. So it’s going to be a great test for us.”
The Huskers will find a familiar face staring back at them from across the net as Megan Miller, who transferred to Northwestern after spending her first two seasons at Nebraska, is Northwestern’s libero. She averaged 3.17 digs per set in her first two matches as a Wildcat and served up four aces without an error.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Zuhn said. “Megan’s awesome. I’m sure there will be some amount of trash talk all in fun going into it. We love Megan so I think it will just be awesome to be able to see her again and be able to play her.”
Cook said after Saturday’s win that he’s hoping to get more players into the match this season to help combat the wear and tear of the back-to-backs. On Friday, he stuck with his six starters, his libero and one sub. On Saturday, he used a different starting lineup with Callie Schwarzenbach starting instead of Kayla Caffey at middle blocker and he also used two more subs than he did on Friday.
“It could be subs and it could be a change in lineups, moving people around and changing lineups a little bit,” Cook said. “When you’re playing the same team twice back-to-back, you have to be ready to adjust. And of course with COVID and all of that, you have to be ready to adjust. So we’re trying to be more flexible with our lineups and who we play than we have in the past.”
Speaking of COVID-19, over the past week we’ve already seen two programs impacted as the University of Michigan suspended all athletic competition for two weeks and Penn State paused team activities following a positive test among Tier 1 personnel.
“I’ve been worried about this ever since I’ve been following football, following basketball and of course, I’ve been worried about volleyball,” Cook said. “That’s why we’re in the mindset of just taking it one day at a time. I’m very concerned about it and if it gets really bad, and of course what the University of Michigan just did shutting down with worrying about this new variation of the virus, it can go like wildfire throughout the Big Ten …
“But we were at Indiana and they did a great job of testing us. They’re doing testing here every day. So much is out of your control. You can do everything right, which we’re trying to do and I think our players have done a pretty good job, so you’ve just got to keep your fingers crossed.”
First serve at the Devaney Center is set for Friday at 6 p.m. CT. Saturday’s match will also start at 6 p.m., and NET will televise both matches locally. Those out of state can follow via the Husker Sports Network radio call with John Baylor and Lauren West.
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.