For the first time since 2016, Nebraska made it through the nonconference season without a loss, navigating the first part of the season 9-0 with three wins over ranked opponents and climbing up to No. 2 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll.
But that’s all in the past now, because the Big Ten starts on Friday.
“I’m looking at the Big Ten standings and it looks like we’re 0-0, so that’s where we’re starting,” Coach John Cook said. “We have three seasons: nonconference, Big Ten and then postseason. So we’ve got to get off to a good start this week.”
Heading into conference play, Nebraska is first in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .299. The Huskers are also first in opponent hitting percentage at .101, which is also tops in the country. However, after holding their first seven opponents under .110, the Huskers allowed No. 4 Stanford to hit .218 and No. 22 Kentucky to hit .243, which is what had Cook’s attention.
“All I know is Kentucky hit .235 [sic] on us and Stanford hit really well on us too,” Cook said. “I just know this, and I was talking to [Kentucky] Coach [Craig] Skinner about it — college volleyball has got a lot of parity, there are a lot of good teams, there are a lot of good players and it’s going to be a very, very competitive season. I think it’s just going to continue to go that way in college volleyball.”
Nebraska is also first in the Big Ten in opponent kills (9.80 per set) and opponent digs (10.43 per set), second in blocking (2.88 per set) and serve receiving (0.87 reception errors per set), third in assists (12.23 per set) and fourth in kills (13.3 per set).
Junior opposite hitter Merritt Beason earned her first Big Ten Player of the Week honor after averaging 4.0 kills and 1.9 digs per set while hitting .354. She put up 15 kills on .273 hitting, five digs, two blocks and an ace against Stanford and 17 kills on .438 hitting, 10 digs, one block and one ace against Kentucky. Outside hitter Harper Murray also earned her second Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor after averaging 3.63 kills and 2.0 digs per set while hitting .349. Murray had 12 kills on .417 hitting, six digs, four blocks and three aces against the Cardinal and 17 kills on .308 hitting, 10 digs and three blocks against the Wildcats.
Nebraska-Stanford wasn’t the only top-five showdown during the final week of nonconference play. On Sunday, No. 1 Wisconsin pulled off a reverse sweep at No. 3 Florida while then-No. 5 Stanford (now No. 4) did the same at No. 2 Louisville, dropping the Cardinals down to No. 5 in this week’s poll. A scan of the poll will reveal a handful of teams with less-than-stellar records still ranked highly because of their strength of schedule.
“I just think there are a lot more good teams now and that makes the field wider and deeper, and then I think those teams are willing to play,” Cook said. “When Nebraska plays Stanford, it’s not going to hurt RPI whether you win or lose because hopefully the committee is rewarding teams that are playing tough schedules. I think in the old days, everybody was so worried about that; you tried to get as many wins as you could, it didn’t matter who you played. Now, hopefully they’re factoring in when you go play five top-10 teams, you’re not going to go 5-0 necessarily, and if you lose, it’s not going to hurt you.”
The highlight of Nebraska’s nonconference slate over the past three years has been the rotating scheduling agreement featuring Stanford, Kentucky and Louisville. The Huskers went 0-2 against Stanford, 0-1 against Louisville and 1-0 against Kentucky in the first two years.
“At the time we did it I was just trying to get some matches against good teams, because we got dumped out of another one,” Cook said. “So it’s just nice to know every year you can plan on those matches, and then you can base the rest of your schedule based on what kind of team you have coming back and all that, how you want to build your schedule. It’s turned out great. There’ve been great matches, they’re all televised, attendance records. I think this is the first year we’ve won two matches … I think Louisville’s first year they haven’t won both their matches. So that’s an accomplishment right there.”
By Cook’s design for his young team, Nebraska’s nonconference was a slow build, with easier matches to open the season at home, a road match against another high-major in Kansas State in week two, its first ranked opponent in Creighton (who has since risen to No. 11 in the poll) in week three and two ranked opponents in week four including a top-five team on the road in Stanford. As the competition rose, Nebraska’s offense improved. The Huskers topped .300 in each of their last four matches and hit .338 overall after hitting .260 in their first five.
Cook said he felt the nonconference prepared his team well for what it will face in the Big Ten, for the most part.
“We’ve only played back-to-back that first weekend, so that’ll be an adjustment, even though this weekend we play Friday-Sunday,” Cook said. “But that’ll be the next big test is I think the next week we’re on the road for two matches back to back with travel. So that’s one thing we haven’t done yet.”
In addition to the more condensed schedule the Huskers will find in league play most weeks, they’ll also spend much more time on the road. Nebraska only payed away from home twice during the nonconference (not including the match at Memorial Stadium).
“There are some great crowds, but it’s a little different than what they’re used to,” Cook said. “We were trying to front load them on that … Stanford really is not a Big Ten on the road match. Stanford is more like going to the country club. They had a nice crowd, but it’s just not the same environment we’re going to see in some of these other Big Ten schools. So I think that’s the biggest thing is handling that. K-State, though, they did a great job. We’re going to play in some gyms very similar to that. It’s loud, the student section’s great, they’ve got the band, all those things going. That’s going to be probably one of the biggest adjustments and challenges for us.”
A big key for Nebraska heading into Big Ten play will be getting back to full strength after missing a pair of key players against Kentucky on Sunday. On Tuesday morning, Cook said he hadn’t yet talked to Lindsay Krause — who is dealing with a shoulder injury — but thought she might be back in practice. Laney Choboy, who missed the match while in concussion protocol, will be back on the floor when the Huskers take the court to prepare for Friday’s conference opener against No. 21 Ohio State.