Fresh off a sweep at then-No. 2 Penn State, Nebraska’s schedule does not get any easier this weekend as No. 3 Minnesota (12-1) and No. 7 Wisconsin (10-1) come to town. It may only be week two of Big Ten league play, but it could have big ramifications come the postseason.
“We only play Minnesota once, so in that regard it’s an important match and we will play Wisconsin twice,” Coach John Cook said. “These are the teams competing for the Big Ten championship, so in that regard, you have to play two great teams back-to-back, so it makes it… right now, it might be the toughest weekend in the conference, playing those two teams back-to-back.”
Last year, Wisconsin and Minnesota rolled through Lincoln at Nos. 4 and 3, respectively. The top-ranked Huskers swept the Badgers and then survived a marathon five-set match against the Golden Gophers. This season, Minnesota was ranked No. 1 and Wisconsin No. 5 before Michigan State handed both of them their first loss last weekend.
“We always know ever since I’ve been here, Minnesota and Wisconsin has been a big weekend for us,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “Especially last year, I think we were one, one of them was two and one of them was three [sic] so it’s like it’s always a big weekend … We know every night in the Big Ten is going to be a big night, so we’re just trying to work our butts off every single night of every weekend.”
First up is Minnesota at 5 p.m. on Friday. Reigning Big Ten Setter of the Week Samantha Seliger-Swenson leads the way for an up-tempo Minnesota offense that really stresses a defense.
“They try to get you undisciplined with speed, so you have to be disciplined,” Cook said. “One of the reasons I think we’ve done well against them over the years is we preach discipline every day in this gym, we talk about discipline and using your technique. It becomes can we stay organized and balanced with their speed and not let that get to us.”
Hunter said the Huskers are ready for their defense to be tested.
“Obviously blocking is the first area that affects — the middle’s got a lot to worry about,” Hunter said. “They have the middle, the right side, outside — they’re all up and even if the pass is 10, 15 feet up they can set whoever. The middles are obviously a little bit stressed but we have great defense around it. The blockers know that ‘I’m not going to touch every ball but I know we’re going to get digs back there’ so I think that’s the main part that it affects.”
Nebraska will look to replicate its effort from last weekend against the Nittany Lions when it opened some eyes and jumped back into the top 10.
“Last weekend we came out and played and it didn’t feel like it was this out-of-body, amazing, we-played-great experience,” Hunter said. “It just felt like everything was kind of clicking for us and I think especially coming off a weekend with a loss and opening up the Big Ten, you want to show everyone that. But I think all along we’ve known what we’re capable of and I think we’ve known that maybe some teams are going to overlook us or something like that, but we just came out and we played solid volleyball. Obviously it resulted in a win.”
The Huskers have survived working in several freshmen, facing a tough schedule and playing through injuries to two of their top players, but Cook said its still too early in the season to know just what this year’s squad is capable of.
“We’re going to find out what this team’s about,” Cook said. “They took a step at Penn State, but that doesn’t mean we’ve arrived or we’re good. We’re trying to be great in the Big Ten right now and we’ve got to do it for nine weeks, and then we’ll talk about how good this team could be at the end of that. We’re going to get challenged every weekend.”
Former Husker and Olympian Jordan Larson’s jersey will be retired between the second and third sets against the Gophers and the match will be televised on BTN.
Saturday’s match against Wisconsin is set to begin at 7 p.m. and will be shown on NET.
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.