After opening Big Ten play with a pair of wins last week, the Huskers will continue their home stand this weekend with matches against Michigan on Friday and Michigan State on Sunday.
Nebraska is also holding its 2020 and 2021 athletics hall of fame induction ceremony on Friday and a few volleyball legends will be in town for the honor.
“This is a big week,” Coach John Cook said. “We have the Hall of Fame induction for Jordan [Larson] and Coach [Terry] Pettit, so that’ll be a little side deal going on. I think that’s Friday. So, it’ll make it a special weekend, and I think there’s a couple teams coming back … So it’s a great weekend to celebrate volleyball here in Nebraska.”
Larson and Pettit were part of the 2020 induction class that Nebraska will honor during this year’s ceremony. Cathy Noth is part of the 2021 class. As part of the Weekend of Champions event, Nebraska is also welcoming back to the 2000 and 2001 teams to honor them at the Devaney Center.
The 2000 team was Cook’s first as the head coach in Lincoln. The 2000 squad went 34-0 and won the national championship, while the 2001 team fell in the semifinals to Stanford and finished 31-2.
“I just know that 2000 team, they’re here all the time,” Cook said. “They’re very, very close, they all come back here and hang out, they vacation together, they had babies the same weeks. It’s crazy how connected they are.
“The 2001 team was pretty much a lot of those players minus three seniors and we incorporated Nancy Metcalf back into it, and that was a great team. It’s so hard to win national championships. We got beat by Logan Tom who had just come back from the Olympics the year before and it was a phenomenal performance by her, one of the best college volleyball performances I’ve ever seen that knocked us out. So that team was a great team. Those teams, they had everything, and it’s cool to see how they’ve stayed connected.”
As for the current landscape of college volleyball, the latest AVCA Coaches Poll saw plenty of changes thanks to a number of losses by teams in the top 25.
“COVID year, everybody’s got all their players back, and I just think college volleyball is getting more and more balanced,” Cook said. “Look at Mississippi State knocking off Florida — whoever would have thought that? — as one example. There’s been several. There’s been a lot of close matches and I just think college volleyball is getting very, very competitive. I’ve noticed this in recruiting, there used to be just a few good players everybody was recruiting now there are a lot of good players that everybody is recruiting, and just the depth and the quality of volleyball, I think it’s the most popular girls sport in America now, second in the world, and there’s just a lot of really good volleyball players.”
Nebraska’s 2-0 week against Northwestern and Iowa was enough to keep the 8-3 Huskers at No. 12 in this week’s poll, though the rest of the Big Ten teams shuffled around.
After a 2-0 week and losses ahead of them, the Purdue Boilermakers (10-1) climbed three spots to No. 4. Wisconsin (9-1) lost to Maryland in its Big Ten opener before bouncing back to sweep Rutgers, falling three spots to No. 5. Minnesota (6-3) moved up two spots to No. 7 while Ohio State (10-2) fell five spots to No. 8 after losing to Purdue and Penn State last week. The Nittany Lions (9-3) climbed six spots to No. 14. Michigan (8-3, seven points) and Maryland (13-1, five points) also received votes.
Texas remained atop the poll and received all 64 first-place votes. Louisville moved up a couple of spots to No. 3. Creighton held steady at No. 16 while Stanford dropped three spots to No. 17 and Utah fell four spots to No. 19.
After easing into conference play against two teams that entered the Big Ten with a combined 7-14 record, the level of competition takes a step up this week against the Wolverines (8-3, 1-1 Big Ten) and Spartans (7-4, 0-2).
“We have two great teams coming in in Michigan and Michigan State, and life in the Big Ten in volleyball right now is not real easy for anybody,” Cook said. “That makes it exciting, makes it good for you guys to write stories and makes it challenging for coaches and teams to try to find ways to get wins. So our goal this week is trying to go from good to great. We’re trying to get there, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
Going from good to great is one of Cook’s favorite phrases, and he detailed what that means for this team in particular.
“We have to be more disciplined,” Cook said. “We’ve got to kill the ball better, hit for higher percentage. There are some little plays that we’re letting points kind of just sneak away from us that we shouldn’t be; great teams don’t do that. So it’s just a combination of those things and playing with more confidence.”
Players have spoken about a “come to Jesus” meeting they had after the loss to Louisville to get things off their chests and crack down on what the team needed to do to in order to get back on track. Cook said the effort has been great in practice from the start of the year, but he has seen a subtle shift in how they’ve handled things recently.
“They’ve trained well every day this year,” Cook said. “They’ve trained hard. The only thing I noticed is that they are holding each other a little more accountable for effort plays or mental let-down plays that normally I would, but they step in and do it. It’s only happened twice I think. So I just think they’re trying to make an initiative of being more accountable.”
Cook said that kind of player-to-play accountability is a defining trait of great teams.
“Teams that are player-driven as opposed to coach-driven are the best teams,” Cook said. “So I think our leadership is trying to stand up and we’ve challenged our leaders, especially the ones that are playing that they’ve got to have leadership out there, show leadership, be leaders. Nicklin [Hames], I thought this week, the last two matches, has really stepped up in that area, and Kenzie Knuckles has. We need that.”
As for Nebraska’s third captain, Lauren Stivrins, Cook echoed the update he provided after the match on Saturday.
“She’s going to be in normal practice this week,” Cook said. “Of course, [last week] we played Wednesday, so it wasn’t a true normal week, so I think we’ll see how it goes. She’s not playing until she says she feels confident, so it’s between her and the trainer. But she will be in practice this week and we’ll see how that goes.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.