Photo Credit: John Peterson

Nebraska Prepares to Face Michigan as Season Nears Its End

March 23, 2021

The double standard for the way men’s and women’s sports are handled by the NCAA has been a big topic of conversation in recent weeks, and Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield added to that on Monday with a tweet.

Like other sports that the NCAA pushed back to the spring, the tournament field for volleyball was reduced, from 64 to 48. Sheffield isn’t happy about that.

“I totally agree with him and I think it’s ridiculous we’re at 48,” Coach John Cook said on Tuesday. “Basketball didn’t cut back, why are we cutting back? Football didn’t cut back, why are we cutting back? Especially the fact that it’s all in one place, you’re really looking at 16 more teams and it’s all going to be in one place anyways, so they can make that adjustment. The NCAA is under a lot of fire right now, especially with women’s sports. They’re going to pay a big price I think. This would be one way they could start showing that women’s sports are important.

“I think they lump volleyball in with other sports that they’re trying to limit the championships, but the fact that we’ve got it all in one place saves money. To me it’s a no-brainer. I’m glad he tweeted something about it and maybe they’ll listen. They don’t listen to me, so there’s no point in me saying anything.”

The tournament is only three weeks away, and Nebraska has two weekend series remaining on its schedule. Cook said he doesn’t anticipate the Huskers finding a way to squeeze in any of the matches that the Huskers weren’t able to play earlier in the season, so what’s on the schedule — Michigan and Penn State — is likely how Nebraska will close out the regular season.

“It’s really hard,” Cook said. “I know there are a couple teams trying to make up, but thats like an Illinois-Northwestern, a Northwestern-Wisconsin, that they could do it on a Tuesday night. For us, we’re so far away from everybody. Iowa’s the closest, but we’ve already played them. Minnesota would be the next closest, but they don’t have everybody back yet. For us, it’s logistically really tough.”

Every Big Ten team has had at least one series postponed or cancelled.  Five teams have played a 16 matches. On the other end of the spectrum, Northwestern has played just five matches this season, and Nebraska’s next opponent, Michigan, is sitting on nine matches.

The top of the Big Ten features four teams who have all played a different number of matches to this point: Wisconsin (11-0), Ohio State (15-1), Nebraska (12-2) and Minnesota (11-2). One of these teams will be crowned the Big Ten champion, but Cook isn’t putting much stock into that this season.

“There’s some formula in place [for determining a champion],” Cook said. “I haven’t even looked at it. The bottom line is there’s no way there can be a true, fair champion this year with all the cancellations, who’s played who. There’s just no way. Whoever’s going to have the best record will win it. Great. Let’s move on and get as many teams in the tournament as we can. It’s been such a weird year. I don’t think there’s any way you can say that team really earned it, but that’s the way it’s going to be and I think everybody’s just happy we get to play.”

Typically, competing for a Big Ten title is one of the goals Cook uses to motivate his team down the stretch, since the Huskers are usually in the mix. He’s not emphasizing that this year.

“The focus is where it’s been all along: it’s day by day,” Cook said. “We’re focused today on is everybody going to test negative? Is everybody going to be at practice? We had some contact tracing issues. I just look at today. What can we get done today? How do we keep it moving? Who’s going to be here? And here we go.”

The contact tracing issue he mentioned resulted in defensive specialist Hayley Densberger and Emma Gabel staying home during Nebraska’s match against Iowa on Saturday. Cook said he hopes both will be cleared to return to practice on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to follow the strictest protocols and be safe as we can with all this, just because we’ve seen what’s happened with Michigan, Michigan State, our men’s basketball team,” Cook said. “Once it gets going, and if it’s one of these new variants, it can wipe out the whole team. We’re just trying to be as careful as we can.”

Getting back to as close to full strength as possible (following Riley Zuhn’s season-ending foot injury) is important for the Huskers because they have a different schedule for the second week in a row. Nebraska will hit the road to face Michigan on Thursday and Friday.

“It’s a shorter week, we get a little more done on Mondays,” Cook said. “I’m more worried about next weekend, what we’ll do. We have two days off; can’t give them two days off, otherwise they forget how to play and their bodies forget how to move.”

Before Cook worries about the weekend, however, the Huskers will have to take care of business against the Wolverines (4-5). Michigan is second in the Big Ten in kills per set at 14.12 (behind only Nebraska at 14.18) and the Wolverines are fourth in aces per set at 1.51. Junior outside hitter Paige Jones leads the way with 3.84 kills per set on .165 hitting while freshman outside hitter Jess Mruzik isn’t far behind at 3.58 kills per set on .149 hitting.

“They’ve got some really great hitters and are a very good team,” Cook said. “They’ve been hit hard by COVID, so they’ve been in, out, in out, which is really, really hard. They’re very good. We’ve got to look at this like the toughest weekend of the year coming up.”

First serve on Thursday is set for 7 p.m. CT while Friday’s will start at 6 p.m. Big Ten Network will televise both matches.

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