The No. 3 Huskers left the state’s borders for the first time over the weekend but the results were not any different as Nebraska went 2-0 with wins over Northwestern and No. 7 Illinois to improve to 13-1 and 4-0 in the Big Ten.
As Coach John Cook often says, any win in the Big Ten is a good win, but Cook did say he wasn’t totally satisfied with how his team performed in Friday’s sweep over Northwestern.
“We didn’t play to the level of expectations,” Cook said. “I did tell them that, I said any win’s a good win, but this was not Husker volleyball. But we learned from it the first night and played much better the second night in a much tougher environment against a better opponent. In talking with them on Saturday, it was our first road match, we had a lot of nervous people, that gym’s really tough to play in.”’
The Huskers swept the Wildcats but had to battle back from a 23-20 deficit in the third set to finish it off. Communication was an issue in that match.
“Northwestern was kind of sporadic,” sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet said. “There was a lot of, like, you don’t really know what’s going on plays in that game and that was definitely eliminated, you didn’t really see any of those on Saturday. We’re definitely trying to work on cleaning things up and just playing smooth Husker volleyball.”
Nebraska had about 22 hours to get things cleaned up before taking on a top-10 foe in Illinois and that is exactly what they did. How?
“You get yelled at by Cook, and then you talk about it in the locker room and then you get it figured out,” Sweet said. “We just kind of got together and our seniors kind of told us and we watched some film, so we kind of figured things out pretty quick and realized what we needed to do because Illinois definitely is a great serving team and they’re really good offensively.”
After allowing five aces in three sets to the Wildcats, Nebraska only surrendered two of them to the Illini in four sets on Saturday.
“It was communication, it was understanding who has what responsibilities on the court,” Cook said. “Communication is a two-way deal, it’s talking and it’s listening. We had people crashing into each other and just kind of a, I don’t know if a comedy of errors is the right thing, but I hadn’t seen that all year. The interference got to us a little bit and we made sure Saturday, even though Illinois had a sold-out arena, that we were going to let that focus us better.”
The Huskers held the Illini to a season-low .157 hitting en route to handing them their first loss of the season, and Sweet said the match showed the Huskers what they are capable of.
“I definitely think we saw what we can do if we work all together and if we work as a unit and we’re all on the same page,” Sweet said. “I definitely think that gave us a lot of push going into October for what we can do and what we want to do this year.”
Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins was named co-Big Ten Player of the Week after becoming the third player in program history to hit 1.000 in a match on double-digit attempts as she went 10-for-10 against Northwestern on Friday. She followed that performance with eight kills on .278 hitting with four blocks and three aces against the Illini.
Nebraska has now won 13 straight after dropping the season-opener against Florida. They remained at No. 3 behind BYU and Stanford in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll and the Illini stayed at No. 7 despite losing to the Huskers, another sign of respect for Nebraska. Sweet said she hasn’t been at all surprised by what the team has accomplished thus far despite the amount of turnover from last year’s squad.
“I thought we were going to have a good season,” Sweet said. “I knew we’d have some bumps to work through — we’re young and then we have a lot of freshmen playing, so it was just trying to figure out how all that was going to work together and how we were going to get that flow back. I thought we were going to be good this year and we’re playing how I expected us to right now.”
Sophomore outside hitter-turned-middle blocker Anezka Szabo did not make the trip to Illinois. According to Cook, she suffered a high ankle sprain in practice last week and will be out “at least a month.”
“That’s what I was told – that’s a month in football,” Cook quipped. “I’d like to think volleyball players are a little tougher so maybe we’ll say three weeks.”
With Szabo on the shelf, sophomore outside hitter Sami Slaughter will train as an emergency third middle blocker.
This week, the Huskers will host Iowa on Wednesday and No. 4 Minnesota on Saturday. The Gophers jumped ahead of Wisconsin in this week’s poll after sweeping the Badgers in Minneapolis.
First serve against Minnesota was originally scheduled for 7 p.m., but when Cook learned that Nebraska’s football game against Wisconsin was scheduled to kick off at 6:30 p.m. in Madison, he reached out to the Gophers with the hopes of moving the match to earlier in the day. Minnesota refused, however, so the match will start at 7 as originally scheduled on NET.
Wednesday’s match against Iowa is set for a 6 p.m. start on BTN.
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.