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Nebraska Cornhuskers Madi Kubik (10)
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

New-Look Huskers and Badgers Set to Square Off in 2021 Championship Rematch

October 25, 2022

Roughly 10 months after squaring off for the 2021 national championship, No. 1 Nebraska and No. 5 Wisconsin are set to meet once again to open the second half of Big Ten play.

Both teams look to be conference and national contenders once again, but they’re both doing it with a very different roster from the last time they faced each other.

The Badgers have won eight straight meetings with the Huskers, but many of the athletes that played key roles for the Badgers throughout that winning streak have finally moved on. Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley, Lauren Barnes and the rest of the Badgers’ super seniors from last year are out of eligibility, but Wisconsin is trucking along regardless at 15-3 overall and 9-1 in conference.

“They had Sydney Hilley and Dana Rettke for five years we had to deal with, which is tough,” Coach John Cook said. “But they’ve got a lot of great players. They’ve done a really good job. They’re always in the hunt, they won three straight Big Ten championships. So right now we have to go on the hunt here; we’re not protecting anything. So it’s a great challenge for us.”

Madi Kubik said it will be strange not seeing the likes of Rettke and the others on the other side of the net, but she’s excited about the new players who will carry on the competition between the two perennial powers moving forward.

“I guess it’s a little bit different because you think of those players being in college volleyball for so long and even with us having Lauren [Stivrins] and Lexi [Sun] and those players that played against each other for so many years,” Kubik said. “But I also think it’s kind of cool because the game continues to grow and there are younger players that are coming up and doing really awesome things, so that’s kind of exciting to see.”

Despite the key departures, Nebraska fans will recognize many of the faces on the other side of the net including the Badgers’ top transfer addition in Sarah Franklin.

“They’ve got two great outside hitters,” Cook said. “They’ve got [Anna] Smrek, who they put in a different spot than they had her last year, but we’ve got to deal with her three rotations. And then [Devyn] Robinson is playing great. Two great middles, I mean, look at their numbers. And they took advantage of the transfer portal by getting Kansas’s best player and Michigan State’s best player. So they’re loaded.”

Franklin, a Michigan State transfer, is leading the team in kills with 3.52 per set on .232 hitting while Julio Orzol, the other outside hitter Cook referenced and a returner, is second with 2.91 kills per set on .237 hitting. Smrek is the 6-foot-9 middle blocker/opposite hitter who lit the Huskers up last season and earned Final Four MVP.

Robinson, the right side hitter/middle blocker, is another returning starter who is averaging 2.54 kills per set on .353 hitting. The middle blockers are Danielle Hart, who is back after missing most of the 2021 season with a torn ACL, and Kansas transfer Caroline Crawford. Hart averaging 1.80 kills per set on .416 hitting and 1.59 digs per set, second in the Big Ten and narrowly ahead of Nebraska’s Kaitlyn Hord. Crawford is chipping in 1.03 kills per set on .376 hitting and 1.47 blocks per set.

Like Nebraska, the Badgers have also changed to a 6-2 system featuring junior Izzy Ashurn and senior MJ Hammill splitting the setting duties. Together, they’re averaging 9.6 assists per set and have served up 44 aces.

“It is kind of an interesting thing that they’re running a 6-2 and so are we and they hadn’t done that for a really long time and neither have we,” Kubik said. “I think they have a couple of transfers that are interesting, but people that have kind of been from or around the Big Ten so we’ve seen those faces before. We know Devyn Robinson on the right side is going to be threatening; they give her the ball a lot, so that’ll be something that will challenge us. I think if we just continue to be really aggressive on our serving and get them off the net and keep them out of system then we will have a lot easier job defending their offensive players.” 

Wisconsin is leading the Big Ten in hitting at .270 and is second in opponent hitting at .151, a distant second behind Nebraska’s .119. The Badgers will have home court advantage for round one as Nebraska is heading to the UW Field House before hosting the Badgers in the final week of the regular season. Wisconsin is 8-0 at the Field House with their lone home loss coming at the Kohl Center to Florida in a match that featured a record-setting crowd (surpassing the total at the Creighton-Nebraska match in Omaha this season).

“I don’t like their gym very much,” Kubik said. It’s kind of like a dungeon a little bit because the fans sit up, but it’s in the dark. So I don’t know, the gym’s not great, and it’s really cold too with the wood and everything. But I think we’ve done a really good job of being on the road for a really long time and just coming in and being really intentional and efficient with our practices. I think that’s what you have to do in those situations because it would be really easy to come into practice and kind of slack off and be like ‘We’re on the road again and I don’t know what we’re going do.’ But yeah, so I’ve been really impressed with our team and our commitment to that.”

Cook doesn’t share his captain’s feelings about the Field House after spending seven years as the head volleyball coach in Madison.

“I played hoops in there, coached there, saw a boxing match in there, saw wrestling … They played a retro basketball game when I was there in there; it was unreal,” Cook said. “So it’s a great venue and they’ve obviously made a lot of upgrades since I was there. There was no air conditioning, we had issues with the humidity and the floor. But it’s a fun building to play in.”

First serve against the Badgers on Wednesday is set for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network. After the Wisconsin match, the Cornhuskers will return home where they will play six of their last nine Big Ten matches, starting with a rematch against Maryland on Saturday.

The Terrapins are the last team to take a set off Nebraska, who has sweet six straight opponents. Nebraska beat Maryland 3-1 in College Park on Oct. 2. This week as a whole will provide a significant challenge for the Husker attackers as Maryland and Wisconsin are the top two blocking teams in the Big Ten, averaging 3.45 and 3.15 per set, respectively.

“In practice Coach says that if we can play against our boys who are big guys and big blocks, if we can tool them and beat them in blocking then we can tool anyone in the country,” Kubik said. “So I think this week we’ve put a really big emphasis on that and just these two days of practice of being able to tool them and be offensive against those big blocks, and so hopefully that will transfer into our matches.”

First serve at the Devaney Center on Saturday is set for 7:30 p.m., half an hour after originally scheduled to make it easier for fans wishing to attend both the football game and the volleyball match, which will be available to stream on Big Ten Plus.

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