For the first time since September, Coach John Cook took to the podium for his weekly Monday press conference after a 2-0 weekend. The Huskers took down arch rival Penn State in five sets in Nebraska’s 250th consecutive home sellout on Friday then made short work of Rutgers on Saturday.
“It was pretty awesome this past week, 250th sellout — I’m really proud of that,” Cook said. “The fact it got to be against Penn State and it was a phenomenal volleyball match by two really good teams. It was just a really special night. We got a little confidence from that and we’re going to need it this week at Iowa and Michigan. They just beat Wisconsin yesterday, so life in the Big Ten.”
The Hawkeyes took a set off the Huskers for the first time since 1987 in the teams’ first meeting in Lincoln. Iowa is 13-12 on the year including 5-9 in the Big Ten.
“Taylor Louis is a big-time hitter and Cali Hoye has had some huge matches,” Cook said. “Brie Orr is a really good setter. They’re a little unorthodox in some of the things that they do but in the big matches they’ve had those left sides have gotten hot and Taylor Louis hit some big-time shots. She’s s physical as any outside hitter in the conference.”
Nebraska will make the trip over to Iowa City on Wednesday before traveling to Ann Arbor on Saturday to take on the Wolverines who took down Wisconsin in four sets — in Madison — four days after they lost in four sets at Indiana. Nebraska handed Michigan its first loss of the season in the Big Ten opener on Sept. 21.
Nebraska jumped ahead of the Nittany Lions and the Badgers in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll following their losses, moving up from No. 8 to No. 6. No. 3 Minnesota and No. 4 Illinois held their spots as did the Nittany Lions at No. 7. Wisconsin dropped from No. 5 to No. 8. Purdue and Michigan each moved up one spot, to Nos. 12 and 14, respectively.
In the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s midseason release of its top-10 seeds — taking results into account through last Wednesday (and not Nebraska’s win over Penn State), the Huskers were pegged at No. 9.
Nebraska’s success over the weekend also generated an individual award as sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, the first such honor of her career. Stivrins totaled 18 blocks in two matches over the weekend including her first career double-double against Penn State with 13 kills and a career-high 10 blocks. She followed that up with eight blocks and five kills in a sweep over the Scarlet Knights. Overall, Stivrins averaged 2.25 kills and 2.25 blocks while hitting .516 last week.
The win over Penn State was Nebraska’s first over a top 10 opponent since beating Illinois in four sets in Champaign on Sept. 29. The Huskers dropped five straight matches to top-10 opponents between the wins over the Illini and Nittany Lions and Cook said he’s hoping that his team gained some confidence from snapping that streak.
“Our team’s working really hard, so that validated a little bit that our work’s paying off,” Cook said. “Again, it was a great match. I watched it yesterday on TV — that was a great volleyball match as we usually have with Penn State.”
The Huskers dropped five of their eight matches in October in large part because of late-game struggles and Cook said he hopes that navigating that tough stretch helped his team grow.
“I think we’re used to battling,” Cook said. “Again, we gave away game one [against Penn State] — we were up 23-20 and lost it but it didn’t rattle us because you know it’s going to be a three-hour match. I was really, really proud of our team for not getting down and giving one away. We played some good volleyball and I think that’s what we’ve learned is you’ve got to be resilient. It’s going to be a long, long night and you’ve just got to battle. I think we’re just used to that now … I just think we have a mindset to battle and not much fazes us.”
Two wins doesn’t automatically fix what ailed the team all through October, however. Cook said it is difficult to make significant improvements this late in the season, but he did identify a few key areas in which the Huskers have to takes strides.
“It’s hard to get better,” Cook said. “This time of year you’re just trying to maintain but in my list of notes today, Jazz [Sweet] and Lexi [Sun] have got to hit for higher numbers and less errors, Callie [Schwarzenbach] has got to get more than a kill a game and I think if we can get Nicklin [Hames’] decision and location a little bit better — which I think we can and has been improving — those are probably the three main areas.”
Sun, the sophomore outside hitter who transferred from Texas and missed most of the nonconference with an injury, is hitting just .101 over her last seven matches with 55 total attack errors. Sweet, the sophomore outside hitter, is hitting .100 with 55 errors over her last nine. Schwarzenbach, the 6-foot-5 freshman middle blocker, is now hitting just over .300 on the season but is only putting down 1.07 kills per set.
First serve in Iowa City on Wednesday is scheduled for 7 p.m. on BTN. Saturday’s match against Michigan, set to begin at 6 p.m., will only be available via BTN Plus.
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.