For the first time this season, the Huskers are preparing to leave the state as the team’s first Big Ten road trip has arrived. No. 3 Nebraska (11-1, 2-0) will head to Northwestern on Friday and No. 7 Illinois on Saturday.
Nebraska has a significant home court advantage at the always sold-out Devaney Center, but the Huskers have traditionally been very successful on the road as well.
“We have a routine, we have a plan we stay with, and I think actually we prepare better on the road because we have more time because we’re not here in school,” Coach John Cook said. “I think it’s an advantage to be there. We get to watch more video, we get more prep time because we’re hanging in a hotel all day.”
However, this trip provides unique challenges with the quick turnaround between the two matches and the completely different environments the Huskers will find in each one.
“This is a short week because we played Sunday,” Cook said after practice on Wednesday. “Yesterday was a pretty light day and today we got pretty good prep in. I thought they were on it today, so we’ll see. I told them we’re going to go with an underdog mentality because we’re playing a team that’s undefeated and we’re going into a very difficult high school gym environment to play in against a team that’s striving to make a big breakthrough. It’s their Big Ten [home] opener and we have to go in there with an underdog mentality and get ready to go in there and swing.”
Because of ongoing renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern is holding its home games at Evanston Township High School with a capacity of 2,400, a far cry from the 8,000-plus that show up to every match in Lincoln.
“It’s just so different from what we have here at Devaney but we can’t really let that affect how we play, we just have to play our game and play one point at a time and not really worry about the context of where we’re playing,” senior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “But I think it will be good for us just because we haven’t traveled yet and so we’ll get to see some new places and environments and it’ll be a challenge.”
Cook said the team will get to practice in the gym prior to the match to get a feel for it.
The Wildcats are 10-4 so far this season but dropped their first two conference matches to Indiana and Purdue last weekend, both in four sets. Nia Robinson, the team’s kills leader at just over four per set, did not play in either match.
Then on Saturday, Champaign will host a showdown between two top-10 teams with a bit of a connection between the two. The Illini are 13-0 so far this season after beating the same two teams Northwestern lost to last weekend. Former Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas is in his second season at the helm after taking the team to the NCAA Tournament last year.
“It’s a little weird but it makes it more fun, more competitive,” Maloney said about seeing her former coach on the opposite bench. “We really miss Chris and he was awesome here, so it’ll be good to see him again … We are always really happy for Chris when they have a start like that, but we want to go in and ruin their undefeated season.”
The Illini were coming off a 17-14 season when Tamas took over and are 36-11 since. Cook said he isn’t surprised by the success his former assistant is already having in Champaign.
“They had a lot of talent, but he’s got them playing well,” Cook said. “Credit to him and it’s [Jordyn] Poulter’s senior year and I know that probably has a lot to do with it. This is his second year there, so he’s had a chance to train them and get them going.”
Poulter is a senior setter for the Illini who is leading the Big Ten in assists at 11.48 per set and is leading an offense that is third in the conference in hitting percentage at .293.
“She’s the key,” Cook said about Poulter. “She makes it happen. She’s good. I voted her Big Ten Player of the Year last year … She’s really good. She does everything well — she’s a great blocker, setter, she can attack, she leads that team, they run tempo, she can set tempo from anywhere almost on any pass. She’s going to be a national team level setter.”
Poulter is one of the best in the country at what she does and was a third team AVCA All-American as a junior.
“She’s really aggressive,” Maloney said about the 6-foot-2 setter. “She attacks a lot on tight balls; she’ll dump a lot so that’s just another thing we have to think about, especially blockers, if it’s a tight pass their worried about is she going to dump, is she going to shoot it out to the go, do they have time to get there, stuff like that. She keeps us on our toes for sure.”
Poulter has plenty of weapons around her as well as junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade is putting down 4.06 kills per set at a .297 clip. Megan Cooney, a 6-foot-4 sophomore opposite hitter, isn’t too far behind at 3.27 kills per set while hitting .315. Senior Ali Bastianelli, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker, is a two-way force at the net, putting up 2.15 kills on .393 hitting while averaging 1.53 blocks per set, good for third in the conference.
Both matches are set for 7 p.m. starts with the Illinois match appearing on BTN.
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.