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Nebraska No. 1 in Both Coaches Poll and Big Ten Standings at Midway Point of League Play

October 25, 2022

With 10 wins and zero losses, Nebraska has reached the midway point of Big Ten conference play at the head of a talented pack. 

That unblemished record will be put to the test on Wednesday as Nebraska opens the second half against reigning Big Ten champion, fifth-ranked Wisconsin.

“We’re halfway through the Big Ten, so we’ve got a tough second half with a really challenging schedule, but we’re looking forward to it,” Coach John Cook said on Tuesday. “This is the grind of the Big Ten, and we’ll start it off tomorrow at Wisconsin.” 

The Huskers’ 18-1 overall record together with losses last week by Texas and Louisville was enough to vault Nebraska back to the No. 1 spot in the most recent AVCA Coaches Poll. Senior Madi Kubik said being No. 1 is “cool,” but the team’s goal is simply to be in the top four come the end of the regular season.

“One of our goals this year is just to be in the top four seeds before they do the selections for the NCAA Tournament because last year, being selected 10th, we saw what it was like to be on the road the entire NCAA Tournament before Final Four, which was really challenging for us,” Kubik said. “We recognize that so many people were sick and it was really hard to be on the road that long and competing at that high of a level, so it’s important for us to continue to try and stay in the top four.”

The Huskers are also chasing their first conference championship since finishing in a tie with Penn State in 2017 (though the Huskers beat the Nittany lions during their only regular season meeting and again in the postseason that year). With the Badgers and Ohio State only one game back in the standings, Nebraska still has a long way to go to accomplish that goal.

“I think what we’ve done is we’ve prepared them that the Big Ten is a 10-week grind, and you can’t get too up on one match, too down on a match,” Cook said. “It’s just going to come down to the last week and we want to try to be in a position to play some big matches that have a chance to win the championship the last week. So we’ve got to take care of business now, and that’s what it is. It’s just a grind. Every week, you’re going to play a great team and you’ve got to try to go and play your best.”

Wednesday will be Nebraska’s seventh road match in a there-and-a-half-week span. That has provided challenges for the team both on and off the court, but it’s also set up a home-heavy second half as the calendar turns to November. 

“That’s the art of coaching — how do you push them hard, keep them rested, keep them caught up on everything,” Cook said. “Fortunately, we have good students; I get grade reports about every other day and they’re doing great with that. It’s just the balancing act of coaching this time of year … Our challenge right now is we’ve had seven out of nine on the road. But we’ll have more at home in the second half which will be nice. I’d much rather be at home in November than on the road a bunch of November.”

The Huskers are leading the country in opponent hitting percentage (.119) and have taken a big step forward on offense from a year ago as well (hitting .257), despite constantly changing lineups and rotations. However, with everyone now healthy, Cook still sees plenty of room for improvement.

“We’ve played so many different lineups, just trying to get comfortable with those guys, with each other,” Cook said. “We still have some balls that land between people, we still have some miscommunications on offense, but those are things that as we play more with this lineup, they’ll get smoother. So just continue to be smooth … And then the other thing is can you continue to get better this time of year? Some teams are just surviving and we’re trying to come in and get better every week. So I think that’s a mindset and our team understands that.”

Kubik said capitalizing on their defense and using it to put points on the board is where she’s hoping to see the team take strides over the second half of the league schedule.

“I think we just have to continue to just be offensive in transition because our defense is so strong,” Kubik said. “We can really just suffocate teams with our block and D, but we need to continue to score in transition and that’s what’s going to make the difference of winning or losing matches.” 

As for what the Huskers have done really well to get to this point, Kubik highlighted the team’s mindset and growth in its ability to close out matches from a year ago, to which the team’s 11-match winning streak featuring nine sweeps can attest.

“I think what we do really well is when we decide to take over a match, we do,” Kubik said. “I think in past years we’ve kind of struggled in the first set and then we’ve even beat teams two sets and then in the third we kind of mess around and we play games close. I think this team, we do a really great job of just committing to being in this set and in this play and deciding ‘OK, we’re done with this game and we want to be done,’ and ending the game, which is cool. And I think because we have so many players that can kind of take over a match like that with Whitney [Lauenstein] and Bekka [Allick] and all of our attackers. It’s really cool that we have the capability to do that.”

Allick in particular has been on a roll recently. The middle blocker has won back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week Awards and is averaging 2.68 kills per set on .542 hitting over her last six matches. Kubik said Allick’s commitment to being great is what has impressed her the most.

“Every single day she’s the first person in the gym, she’s doing her meditations, she’s on her pre-practice exercises,” Kubik said. “She’s just really committed to helping this team be successful and to her own growth and success and it’s really awesome to see in such a young player. So I’m really impressed with her and how she’s done this year so far.”

Cook said Allick’s time spent with the program in the spring as an early-enrollee has played a big part in her ability to make a big impact as a freshman. She’s leading the team in hitting percentage at .373.

“She works hard, she prepares really well, she’s very committed to getting better every day,” Cook said. “She doesn’t act like a freshman. Part of that is she came early, so that has helped prepare her to get through the season, more prepared than had she just showed up in the summer.”

Allick is one of many Huskers playing at a high level, and the Huskers are sitting in a great spot at the midway point of the Big Ten season as a result. Cook credited the team’s serve, block and defense along with their mindset for their streak of six consecutive sweeps — the most for the program since Nebraska joined the Big Ten.

“When you’re doing that, you put pressure on teams and if we can side out enough while we’re putting pressure on them then that gives us a chance to win those matches 3-0,” Cook said. “Our players have done a great job of doing that for the entire match. They have a great mindset of playing the next point and trying to play at our level that we know we can play at, and they’ve done a really, really good job of that.”

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