Nebraska (11-3) jumped from No. 8 to No. 4 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll after knocking off a pair of top-seven teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin over the weekend. However, the Huskers won’t get much time to rest as No. 14 Michigan State — who also beat both the Gophers and the Badgers in the same weekend — comes to Lincoln for the first Wednesday night match of the Big Ten slate.
“Our team handled three big teams in eight days and now basically, Wednesday, we have the team that also has beaten Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Coach John Cook said. “It just keeps getting bigger every week and obviously Wednesday night’s a pretty important match.”
Nebraska comes in sixth in the first RPI release. Penn State tops the list with Minnesota coming in third and Wisconsin at seventh. In total, there are nine Big Ten teams in the top 30 of the RPI and Nebraska has faced five of the top 10 already this season.
Cook said the atmosphere at the Devaney Center on Saturday night when the Huskers came back from a 0-2 deficit to beat Wisconsin was among the top five he’s experienced.
“Our fans were really into it,” Cook said. “They were willing us back and it got really loud. Tyler [Hildebrand], my assistant and Kayla [Banwarth], this is all new to them and the first thing out of their [mouths], ‘god, it was so loud.’ The fans were into it and they deserve a lot of the credit for making it a great atmosphere.”
Cook said that kind of crowd isn’t anything new for the teams Nebraska has played or will play this season.
“Wisconsin plays in front of big crowds,” Cook said. “The top five attendance I think are all Big Ten schools with the exception of Hawaii — Minnesota, Wisconsin, us and maybe Penn State. Michigan State’s drawing really big crowds — they had 4,000. Michigan drew 8,000 in Chrysler Arena the other night. So the Big Ten is rocking for attendance. I think these players get used to it but it still creates energy for the home team.”
Cook said Nebraska’s 4-0 start to Big Ten play has showed to him what kind of toughness this team has.
“We’re probably pretty tough mentally,” Cook said. “I call it emotional strength. We’ve been in big matches and we’ve held our composure really well. We got down 0-2 and were able to fight back against a very good team. I just think they’re showing that they’ve got some emotional strength, that they can dig down and get it done and kind of rise to the challenges. You never know until you get in it how a team’s going to respond. I’m pretty amazed at what they’ve done.”
One player who showed toughness in the face of adversity is redshirt freshman middle blocker Lauren Stivrins.
“Lauren did some good things offensively,” Cook said. “I thought she left some blocks out there but she played really well at the end of that match Saturday night, and that was good to see. I think she struggled early but it’s another good sign of a young player and a young team to be able to pull out of it when things aren’t going our way. She’s a developing player. She’s played in 13 matches [sic] in her career. So it’s good to see that. But she’s been an offensive force.”
In terms of leadership, despite the presence of two senior co-captains in setter Kelly Hunter and outside hitter Annika Albrecht, the burden of leadership is shared by the whole team.
“It’s our whole thing, is “With Each Other, For Each Other,” and I just think they really are pulling together as a group, because we don’t really have a — I mean Kelly’s a good leader, but she doesn’t rally the troops, she’s more behind the scenes,” Cook said. “So there’s not one person, so I just think it’s all of them together and all the work they’ve done, and that’s been a strength for this team.”
With the non conference slate and start to the Big Ten schedule, Cook had no choice but to throw his young team into the deep end of the pool right from the start, and 14 games in they’re still swimming.
“You never know how good you’re going to be, but I knew after we played in Florida, I think they got a lot of confidence from that and then of course we took that into UCLA,” Cook said. “So I think their confidence has been building. Even though we lost at Florida, we knew we could play at a pretty high level and we had a chance to win that. I just think it’s continued to build and we’re showing that progress. I think they’ve done a really good job of handling the moment, sustaining the point-by-point [mentality] and not getting too up, too down and playing pretty consistently. When you do that you’re going to always have chances to win.”
The next test will come against the Spartans (11-2) on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
“They’ve got a lot of seniors who we’ve been playing against,” Cook said. “I go back to 2014 and it’s the same players in our scouting report. They’re all seniors now, they’re physical, they have three jump servers and they really bring a lot of pressure form the service line. They have a good setter who’s been a four-year starter. They’re big, they’re physical, they’ve got five players who can kill the ball. They’re a really nice team.”
After taking on Michigan State at home, Nebraska will hit the road for a Saturday night showdown in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes (12-5).
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.