Coach John Cook took to the podium for his Monday morning press conference following a 2-1 weekend at the Omaha Challenge and opened his address with a nod to the weekend’s struggles for a couple of the Nebraska athletics programs.
“The lesson I learned from this past weekend is you don’t schedule a team with Northern in its name in the middle of the day on Saturday,” Cook quipped.
Nebraska (7-4) saw its six-match winning streak snapped on Saturday afternoon at Baxter Arena as Northern Iowa took down the Huskers in four sets. Nebraska swept Kansas State on Friday evening and wrapped up the tournament Saturday night with a 3-0 win over Omaha. The results dropped the Huskers from No. 10 to No. 14 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll.
“I was really surprised,” Cook said about his team’s performance against the Panthers. “I don’t know if it was mid-day or… I don’t know the explanation. I saw us do things we haven’t done all year. We had won 1-2-3-4-5-6 straight matches, sweeps, 3-0, up until the match. We were playing some pretty good volleyball, so I don't know what happened. We have to figure that out.”
Northern Iowa (10-4) cracked the top 25 at No. 22 after previously receiving votes. Cook said the Huskers are going to have to use the loss as an opportunity for growth as Nebraska is set to begin conference play on Friday.
“Northern Iowa played a really good match against us,” Cook said. “We’re going to learn a lot from that and we need to because we’re starting the Big Ten this week, and looking at the Big Ten standings here, it looks like we’re going to play three of the five top teams in the country in the first two weeks and we start at Penn State and then Rutgers the next night, which is always a tough trip. We’ve got our hands full.”
The reigning Big Ten champions will open the season at No. 2 Penn State (10-0) on Friday at 7 p.m. Last year, Cook used the 2015 national championship season as motivation, but with just half the team returning, Cook is relying on the veterans to teach the newcomers what it takes to succeed in the Big Ten.
“Half our team, they know the grind we’re getting ready to go in,” Cook said. “Hopefully they can instill some of that into the other half of our team that this is going to be a grind and it’s tough every night. I don’t know where we’re ranked today, but Minnesota, Penn State and Wisconsin are all undefeated and in the top 5 in the country. There are a lot of good teams here. It’s going to be a really tough grind.”
Nebraska's second match this weekend will be at Rutgers (5-7). Next weekend, Nebraska will host No. 1 Minnesota (11-0) and No. 5 Wisconsin (9-0). Cook said that he believes Nebraska’s non-conference schedule should have prepared them as well as possible for what the Huskers are about to face.
“We’ve played [No. 8] Oregon, [No. 3] Florida, [No. 11] UCLA twice and UNI is going to win their conference and go to the tournament; that will be a scary team to play for anybody in the tournament,” Cook said. “K-State probably will be an NCAA Tournament team. So I feel like we’ve played a pretty good, quality non-conference schedule. I think we're still about three weeks behind, not starting with Kelly [Hunter]. We’re still mis-connecting, we’re still doing some things that we normally don’t do. We’ve got to try to continue to improve over these next couple weeks and play some great matches.”
Adding injury to insult, Nebraska lost senior middle blocker to an ankle injury during its win against Omaha. Cook said he had yet to talk to the medical staff to get any kind of timeline for how long Holman would be out.
When Holman went down, Cook turned right to the next woman up — true freshman Chesney McClellan, who had yet to play in a game this season. The appearance eliminated the possibility of a redshirt for McClellan this season, which Cook said isn’t something he thought much about to this point.
“We just take it day by day,” Cook said. “We never really plan to redshirt somebody. So that was never the plan; day by day. Redshirting happens toward the end of the year — ‘OK, they haven’t played so now we’re going to try not to play them.’ We’re a third of the way into our season.”
On the other side of the spectrum, senior co-captain Annika Albrecht continued her recent strong play with 36 kills and .333 hitting over the weekend, including 15 kills against both the Panthers and the Mavericks.
“Kelly knows how to set her and gets her in a great rhythm and great positions,” Cook said. “Anni’s got a great arm and is being really smart. This is what we’e been trying to get her to do her whole career here. She thinks she’e 6-5, bounce balls all over the court and she's now really becoming a smart hitter … She’s done a really nice job, but the ante goes up this week. This will be a really good test.”
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.