LINCOLN, Neb. – No. 1 Nebraska opened up Big Ten play on the road this past weekend with back-to-back in the state of Michigan. On Friday, the Huskers swept Michigan in Ann Arbor before heading to East Lansing on Saturday and battling back from a 0-2 deficit it beat Michigan State in five sets.
“We had some tough matches which we were expecting from the Michigans,” Coach John Cook said at his Monday press conference. “It’s a tough road trip. I think it’s one of the most challenging in the Big Ten, especially when both teams are having football games with logistics and hotels and everything. The team did a nice job, found a way to get two wins and it doesn’t get any easier this week. Another Big Ten week playing two more ranked teams and I’m hoping that it brings out the best in us.”
Cook said this weekend was a preview for what the Huskers can expect the rest of the way.
“You go on the road, you’re playing great athletes, great teams in tough environments,” Cook said. “Michigan was a sauna, Michigan State’s a tough place to play – they had 4,000. It’s that way every week.”
Nebraska made short work of No. 22 Michigan despite playing in sweltering temperatures, winning 25-22, 25-20, 25-18. They encountered a much more difficult challenge the following night, however, as the Spartans won the first two sets 25-22 and 25-23.
Cook said Michigan’s aggressive serving – which produced six aces in the first two sets – was the difference early on. However, at the break he told his team they were going to stick with the game plan.
“We weren’t going to adjust, we weren’t going to rotate or anything like that,” Cook said. “We liked our matchups, we liked everything we were doing, and we were going to stay with it.”
That perseverance eventually paid off as the Huskers battled back from behind to take the third set 25-20.
“I thought if we can win game three, it would put more pressure back on Michigan State, like OK, now they’ve got something to lose because they were so close to winning,” Cook said. “I thought if we could just flip it… when teams play with no fear, it’s easy. And now all of a sudden when they’ve got something to lose, it changes it a little bit. They started making a few more errors, we started putting pressure on them and that’s what got us back in the match.”
Nebraska closed out the match 25-14 and 16-14 to take the match in five. Needing a spark in that third set, Cook turned to sophomore outside hitter Olivia Boender, who came off the bench to finish with eight kills and two digs in the final three sets.
“She came in and she brings a lot of energy, first of all, because that’s her personality, and second of all, she got a couple really big kills for us,” Cook said. “I was impressed with how hard she swung and how good of kills those were … She did a nice job. She’s always training to come in, so that’s not anything new for her.”
Boender has come off the bench to play in eight sets this season and is averaging 3.50 kills in those opportunities.
“Her biggest thing is just consistency, day in and day out,” Cook said. “That’s something we try to reward in our gym – you have to come in and perform every day and she’s still trying to be consistent, high level on a daily basis. That’s what the great players do, they find that level that they’re going to train at every day, and then that gives us confidence to play them.”
After losing just two total sets in their first 10 matches, the Huskers had to find a way to overcome a 0-2 deficit, and Cook said that experience is valuable for the Huskers as they seek to win the Big Ten this year.
“That was good,” Cook said. “We’d only lost two sets up until that point. This team had yet to go through that so they responded really well. We’re going to be in that situation probably every week for the next nine weeks now. Pretty much I think we play a ranked team every week. We’re going to be in a lot of tough matches. So it was good for them to find a way to win that match.”
Following the match, however, Cook said he didn’t allow himself to get too excited. The Huskers have a quick turnaround as their streak of road games wraps up in Champaign, Illinois on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
“You can’t get too high or too low in these matches because you start celebrating, patting yourself on the back and then Illinois is in 48 hours,” Cook said. “It’s always good when you go on the road and get two wins in the Big Ten. That was a major accomplishment, I think.”
Illinois is one of those ranked teams Cook said the Huskers will have to face every week after climbing to No. 24 in the latest AVCA poll (the Huskers received all 64 first place votes once again). Nebraska will then begin a three-game home stand on Friday against Ohio State.
“Illinois just knocked off Purdue last week at Purdue, so that was a great win for them,” Cook said. “They have a lot of confidence. That’s always a tough gym to play in – it’s very small, it’s like half a coliseum. And Ohio State, we haven’t beat them in the last two years. We’ve got our hands full; great challenge this week.”
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.