Nebraska may have opened the season 0-2, but Coach John Cook is far from discouraged after what he saw from his young team without its senior leader and floor general, setter Kelly Hunter.
“I knew going in I was going to have to be really patient,” Cook said. “I was prepared for that. That’s why I’m pretty pleased with them because they really competed, they really worked together, they really were trying to do the right things. We just weren’t consistent enough or executed at a high enough level. They know that and I talked to them about that; we’re a work in progress.”
Nebraska dropped the season-opener to then-No. 18 Oregon 3-1 and then fell in five sets to No. 12 Florida in the VERT Challenge. Oregon moved up to No. 14 and the Gators, who hosted the event and went 2-0 including a win over preseason No. 1 Texas, rose up to No. 3. The Huskers dropped five spots from No. 7 to No. 12.
Cook highlighted passing as the biggest source of the team’s first weekend problems, which is understandable considering the Huskers had one player (middle blocker Briana Holman) playing the same role she had last season.
“We had her [setter Hunter Atherton] there as a freshman, Jazz [Sweet] as a freshman, Lauren [Stivrins] as a freshman — her first two college matches, we had [Mikaela] Foecke playing six rotations which she’s never done, Anni [Albrecht] is playing six rotations which she’s never done, and Kenzie Maloney [at libero] — we literally have a whole new team, that’s why I’ve been saying reinvent. You can tell Florida and Oregon were way more organized in chaos than we were, and that’s going to take us time.”
The Huskers raced out to a 10-2 lead in the first set against Oregon and led Florida 2-1 after the first three sets but could not sustain that level of play throughout the match. The Huskers had opportunities throughout the matches that they failed to capitalize on.
“When you play good teams like that, when you make a couple mistakes you lose the game,” Cook said. “That’s what I’ve been telling them for two weeks — you’ve got to make plays when you need to make them, and we just weren’t able to do that. We did it better the second night than we did the first night, but we make a couple better decisions against Oregon we’re in game five with them — we should have won game one — and the same with Florida, we could have won that match in three or four but we let a jump server run us off the court and made some poor decisions at critical times and that’s going to cost you. That’s experience and that’s what we’ve got to learn from.”
The players weren’t the only ones who struggled, however. The coaches had to make some adjustments as well as Nebraska played its first matches with new assistants Tyler Hildebrand and Kayla Banwart on the bench with Cook.
“It did not go smoothly, but that doesn’t happen,” Cook said. “Let’s say football Saturday has a completely new staff; it is not going to go smoothly. I didn’t expect it to go smooth. We have a lot of things we have to work out and learn how to work together, but from night one to night two was a really good improvement.”
Foecke, a junior outside hitter, recorded her first two career double-doubles as she made her debut as a six-rotation player. She amassed 31 kills and 33 digs in the VERT Challenge while hitting .204, and also contributed four blocks and four aces in the second match.
“It took her a while to get going, but she started to get into a really nice rhythm against Florida,” Cook said. “It’s all new for her. Her mindset is completely different now. It would be like a football player all of a sudden going both ways, offense and defense … That’s a whole different mindset than just coming in and blocking and hitting three rotations and then getting a break. I was really pleased with her. Her passing and defense were pretty good. We’ve got to get her hitting out of the back row a little bit better. That’s one of the reasons we have her in there so she can carry a load for us back there.”
The Huskers should get a boost with the return of outside hitter Olivia Boender, who did not travel to Gainesville, Florida, for the VERT Challenge while dealing with an illness. Hunter should also make her season debut this weekend unless she suffers a setback.
The Huskers will face a different kind of challenge this weekend as they make their home debut at the Americas Classic which will feature two matches on Friday and one on Saturday afternoon for Nebraska.
“We have to be really good this week in our preparation,” Cook said. “The way we do it, we prepare for concepts for three teams and then before the match, we say ‘OK, here’s where we’re really zeroing in, but remember we were working on this…’ so it’s a really good test for our players to have to prepare a whole package for three different teams, and these three teams are all very unique. It’s good for us to go through that.”
Nebraska will open up against UMBC on Friday at noon then will return to face Oral Roberts at 7:30 p.m. The Huskers will close out the weekend against St. Mary’s on Saturday at 2 p.m.
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.