Nebraska took a significant step up in competition over the weekend with a pair of matches against No. 5 Minnesota. The Huskers will take another step up this week as they travel to Madison to take on the top-ranked team in the country in Wisconsin.
“A lot of the stuff we’ve been working on is to try to take it to another level because Wisconsin is certainly playing at a very high level right now,”Coach John Cook said. “Their numbers are great. They’re dominating everybody they’ve played statistically. It will be a great test for us and we’ll see where we’re at. This is what we’ve been working on is trying to be a better team than last year. When we play these matches we learn a lot and find out and see if we can pass the test.”
The Badgers are 10-0 and have dropped just two sets all season. They swept a top-15 in Purdue twice to open the season. They’re first in the Big Ten in hitting percentage (.351) and first in opponent hitting percentage as well (.122).
Wisconsin was one of just three teams to beat Nebraska last season, sweeping the Huskers three times including in the Sweet 16. The Badgers brought a lot back from last year’s national runner-up and entered the season ranked No. 1, but newcomers have played a big part in their hot start as well.
“They have a couple different players,” Cook said. “[Madison] Duello graduated, they have an outstanding freshman in that spot. Their libero graduated, but they have the other girl who played defensive specialist as their libero now and they added a couple more back-row players. They’re doing the same thing — playing a lot of back-row players and taking their outside hitters out of the front row, [Dana] Rettke will get a lot of sets and Molly Haggerty and this freshman and Grace Loberg. They’ve got five great hitters there — their other middle’s really good too. She’s putting up huge numbers. [Sydney] Hilley is a first-team All-American setter. So it’s a tough challenge but they really haven’t changed much. That core group has been the most successful Big Ten team in the last couple years here.”
Devyn Robinson is the freshman who has replaced Duello at opposite hitter. The 6-foot-2 Ankeny (Iowa) Centennial product was ranked 14th in the 2019 recruiting class by PrepVolleyball.com and is averaging 2.69 kills per set on .459 hitting while starting eight matches.
Senior Lauren Barnes has stepped into the libero role and is averaging 3.88 digs per set. She earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording 5.14 digs per set in a pair of wins against Michigan State last week.
Senior outside hitters Grace Loberg (2.75 kills per set on .302 hitting) and Molly Haggerty (2.52 kills per set on .260 hitting) are playing a a high level, but neither one has played every match. Haggerty did not play at all against the Spartans, so freshman Jade Demps stepped in and earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. She led the Badgers with 3.57 ills our set on .500 hitting, and is hitting .379 overall this season.
Hilley is second in the Big Ten in assists per set at 10.75, trailing only Nebraska’s Nicklin Hames (11.26). Danielle Hart is Wisconsin’s second middle blocker chipping in 1.75 kills per set on .380 hitting. The face of Wisconsin volleyball is still Dana Rettke, however, as the 6-foot-8 three-time All-American is leading the Badgers with 2.91 kills per set on .452 hitting and 1.66 blocks per set.
Nebraska has it’s on elite middle blocker, however, as Lauren Stivrins is averaging a career-high 3.41 kills per set while leading the Big Ten in hitting at .478.
“Those are two of the most elite middle blockers in the country,” Cook said. “That will be a great match-up. I think they’ve got some great outside hitters. Wisconsin right now is hitting really high numbers so it will be a really big challenge defensively. Last year we had matches where we hit over .300 and lost, and then in the regional final both teams — we hit .060, they hit over .100, .150 or something like that, so it was a defensive battle. It will be interesting to see how this goes. And then we also have the fact that we’re playing back-to-back. Lot of interesting story lines and things to watch and I’ll be just as curious and interested in observing all this as you guys.”
Wisconsin won the serve and pass battle pretty definitively against the Huskers last year, and Minnesota won it against the Huskers on Friday, leading to Nebraska’s first loss of the season. The Huskers bounced back in a big way to sweep the Gold Gophers on Sunday, however, dictating play from start to finish.
“We hit way better, we ran an offense, Nicklin was way more comfortable, so it’s huge,” Cook said. “That’s why I tell you guys serve and pass. Can our serving get the other team in passing trouble and create stress and can we try to keep our setter in a rhythm and in a good spot? That’s why every coach will tell you serve and pass is key and if you can do both of those at a high level you have a good chance.”
Cook compared the difference in Nebraska’s passing in the two matches to a running game in football. He said Friday’s performance was like running for 100 yards while Sunday’s was like running for 300 yards. Nebraska’s going to have to run for 300 or 400 yards to keep up with the Badgers this weekend.
“If we play like we’ve been training, which is what we did Sunday, we’re a pretty good team,” Cook said. “Why we’ve been not hitting on all cylinders is a mystery, but that’s what coaches have to do is figure those things out. I think maybe competition brings out the best in this group and we’ll be having a lot of competition coming up here. They’re excited to play. Emotionally, I think they’ve handled the COVID stuff really well. We’ll just keep plugging away here and see what happens.”
Cook pulled Hames from the Minnesota match late on Sunday after she took a shot to the face from Minnesota’s Stephanie Samedy. Freshman Anni Evans set the last two points of the match as the Huskers completed the sweep, but Cook said Hames is just fine. She never entered concussion protocol and would have been able to return to the match had the Gophers pushed it to a fourth set.
Earlier this week, Stanford dropped out of the AVCA Coaches Poll for the first time ever, leaving Nebraska as the only program who has been ranked in every edition of the poll dating back to its creation in 1982. The Cardinal are 1-3 with six matches canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
“It’s COVID, everybody’s got challenges with COVID,” Cook said. “Stanford obviously has a lot. I know the talent they have; I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment, so I don’t put much stock into that. But one thing that we’ve always prided ourselves on at Nebraska is being consistently good and that goes to being a year-round program and developing athletes and playing at a high level all the time. It’s really hard to do and be that successful at anything in life. So there’s great sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re good and consistently good over time. It’s hard to do.”
The Huskers will try to continue that success this weekend, starting on Friday at 7 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network. Saturday’s match will begin at 8 p.m. CT, also on Big Ten Network.
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.