Step one of a 10-week process is complete as Nebraska went 2-0 in the first weekend of Big Ten play, securing a five-set comeback win at No. 20 Illinois on Friday and sweeping Northwestern on Saturday.
Neither win came easy for the Huskers.
“I told the team it was going to be a lot of two-point games,” Coach John Cook said. “We had four or five two-point games, so we’ve got to figure out a way to win those. We won more than we lost this weekend, so I think that was good. We showed a lot of resiliency. Game five in Illinois, it was a tough match with the heat in there, we finished after 11 o’clock — that was three-and-a-half-hour match. We had to grind that one out. Against Northwestern, I think we were down 10-2 or 12-2 in the first and came back and won that and fought off four match points in game three. So we showed a lot of resiliency, so hopefully we’ll get some confidence from that.”
Cook said that resiliency showed itself in the Illinois match in particular. Nebraska dropped sets two and three in extra points but rallied to take the final two games and win the match.
“They’ve got some fight in them, they held their composure really well,” Cook said. “They might be a little too casual for me at times but they found a way and that’s what you’ve got to do every week in this conference is you’ve just got to find a way to win. Any time you can get two wins on the road in a weekend it’s a good weekend.”
After securing those two wins, Nebraska (10-1) moved up one spot in the AVCA Coaches Poll to No. 2, jumping ahead of Stanford after the Cardinal dropped a match to No. 8 Washington. Baylor, the last remaining undefeated team in Division I at 11-0, is the new No. 1.
No. 5 Penn State, No. 7 Minnesota and No. 13 Wisconsin all held their spots from last week’s poll. Purdue dropped two spots to No. 17 after losing in straight sets to both the Badgers and Golden Gophers on the road. Illinois moved up two spots after pushing Nebraska to five sets and beating Iowa. Michigan is among other teams receiving votes.
Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet led the way for the Huskers over the weekend, leading Nebraska in kills in both matches and averaging 3.9 kills per set on ..411 hitting. She had a season-high 18 kills on a season-high 37 attempts on Friday and followed it up with 13 kills on 19 swings on Saturday.
“Jazz was on a mission this weekend,” Cook said. “I hope it keeps up. She was on a mission, I finally saw her on a mission. She was a very inspired, determined player and had a really big weekend.”
Cook said Sweet’s success was a combination of her being more aggressive and setter Nicklin hames putting her in good spots.
“The were in a good rhythm and we’ve been working really hard with Nicklin on how to set her,” Cook said. “But Jazz was just very motivated. That’s the only way I can say it. She was on a mission … She wants to be a great player, that’s the mission. She had a great Asia trip, but we started off the year and she didn’t seem very inspired. But she sure brought it this weekend and was fun to watch.”
In addition to Sweet’s big weekend, junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins was also efficient and effective with her opportunities, averaging 2.6 kills per set on .429 hitting. That kind of production lessened the burden on Nebraska’s left sides, Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik, who only combined to average 4.9 kills on .239 hitting in the eight sets.
“For us, we have to have everybody playing like that,” Cook said. “We have to be a balanced attack. When you’ve got a lefty over there, you can set her in a lot more situations than you can with a righty, and that’s what really helps us and it takes a load off of our left sides.”
A coach is never satisfied by his team’s performance, but Cook said he was pleased with some of the things his team showed in their first weekend of conference play.
“I still think we can play cleaner, but they certainly showed their toughness and their resiliency, which you never know until you get in that,” Cook said. “They’re showing it. I’d like to see them play like that from the first serve, like they play in game fives. Sometimes they’re a little too casual, but we’re figuring it out. They’re young and they’ve got to figure out how important every point is.”
This week will be a but different for the Huskers with one more road match at Rutgers on Wednesday before they return to the Devaney Center on Saturday to host Wisconsin.
“We survived weekend one,” Cook said. “On to Rutgers, and then Saturday, I guess the football game’s at 3 and our game’s at 7, and it’s not changing. Call Jim Delaney if you’ve got issues with it. But our fans need to realize it’s going to be chaos over there, football game ending, our game starting, so plan accordingly … We can thank Harvey Perlman for getting us into the Big Ten, now we’ve got to deal with this stuff. So here we go.”
The Rutgers match is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
In off-court news, Cook fielded a couple of questions about Senate Bill 206, the “Fair Pay to Play Act” in California that governor Gavin Newsom signed into law on Monday.
“I think nobody worries about women’s sports with this, it’s all about the men’s,” Cook said. “But I think for them, it’s going to create chaos and it’s going to be really hard to police and we’re probably going to have to triple our compliance office. I just think it’s going to open a can of worms, but I’m not a lawyer. These are amateurs and I think they get a lot … You guys all think it’s about football and basketball, but we’re going to have to deal with it with volleyball here, at least, with this likeness and using players’ names. These guys have brands. As I read in Hail Varsity, Lexi Sun has more followers [on Instagram] than Adrian [Martinez].”
What might it look like if that bill were to pass in Nebraska?
“I just know when they graduate from here, all the opportunities they have, they get paid to go do appearances, sign, do things, show up at camps,” Cook said. “It’s a pretty nice deal for them. That would probably just expand it like crazy.”
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.