The first phase of the 2022 season is complete as the No. 3 Cornhuskers navigated the nonconference schedule with an 8-1 record.
Up next is the grind that is the Big Ten, which starts on Friday.
“Twenty matches, 10 weeks — here we go,” Coach John Cook said. “Home and away, and I’m excited. I told the team today, some of the teams in the other conferences may not play another top-10 ranked team for the next 10 weeks. We’re going to be playing a top-10 team every week, pretty much. It’s a great challenge and it’s a great conference and we’ve got to go from good to great.”
The Big Ten took up six of the top 11 spots in the most recent AVCA Coaches Poll, so Cook’s claim isn’t too far off base. Nebraska will face at least one of those top-11 teams in seven of the 10 weeks of Big Ten play, including this weekend.
For the team’s freshmen, including starting middle blocker Bekka Allick, this will be a new experience.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Allick said. “I remember watching the videos, like, ‘Any win in the Big Ten is a good win,’ I believe is what [Cook] says. So it’s coming this weekend and I’m excited.”
Allick said she’s also feeling a little anxious as she gears up to test herself against the best of the best.
“I know the competition that we have been playing against is more of a test of what we’re capable of and how we handle ourselves emotionally, but I think we’re gong to be met with people who are actually the same level as us and potentially even better,” Allick said. “And so I guess I’m a little anxious. But honestly, after losing to Stanford, it gave me little confidence being able to go against big teams.”
The team’s large sophomore class will head into conference play with a different mindset this season now that they have one trip through the league under their belts.
“I feel like when you’re a freshman, you don’t really know what’s going on in a sense,” Lindsay Krause said. “You’re kind of just rolling with the punches and really going for it. But I feel like now I’m almost more able to prepare myself better for every match. Every game is a grind, no matter who we’re playing, and so in realizing kind of how grueling that away schedule can be, and preparing myself better for not only just volleyball season, but also my academics, social life with my family, all that stuff, and really just being a more well-balanced student-athlete.”
Krause said the biggest thing she learned from playing in the Big Ten last season is that the Huskers can’t take any days off, in practice or on game day.
“There may be some teams that you think are going to be easier matches, but those teams come out and play their best match against you that they have all year,” Krause said. “It’s going to be a long away schedule. You guys have to understand that no day is going to be easy and you can’t take any of those days off. So you just have to realize that if you’re taking days off in practice, then you’re going to take that day off in the game and that’s that’s not something that can happen.”
The Huskers will open Big Ten play at home this weekend as Michigan State (9-2) will visit the Devaney Center on Friday. Cook had not yet broken down the Spartans’ film when he spoke with the media on Tuesday, but he did highlight long-time Spartan middle blocker Rebecka Poljan who is in her fifth season with the program. However, Poljan missed Michigan State’s last four matches after starting the first seven of the year.
The Spartans have four players average between 2.5 and 2.9 kills per set, including Poljan (2.54 kills per set on .407 hitting). Sophomore Illinois State transfer Aliyah Moore is leading the way at 2.83 kills per set as a 5-foot-9 pin hitter. Texas libero transfer Nalani Iosia leads the defense at 4.0 digs per set, good for fifth in the Big Ten. Michigan State is hitting .251 and allowing opponents to hit .157, both middle of the pack in the Big Ten so far this season.
The Huskers will have a quick turnaround as No. 7 Ohio State will visit Lincoln on Saturday. The Buckeyes are only 4-4, but seven of their eight nonconference matches were against ranked opponents.
“They’ve been through the worst, so I’m sure their RPI is really high and they played the toughest nonconference schedule in the country,” Cook said.
Coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg returned most of her lineup from a really successful team and opted for a loaded nonconference slate to test her team before Big Ten play. The Buckeyes took some losses but also scored some big wins. They’re hitting .251 this season while giving up .248 to their opponents.
“Ohio State’s got some good players,” Cook said. “Mac Podraza, Big Ten people said she’s the best player in the conference. [Rylee] Rader has lit us up and [Emily] Londot’s a great player.”
Podraza is an All-American setter who is currently leading the Big Ten in assists at 10.56 per set. Rader is a 6-foot-2 junior middle blocker who is averaging 2.29 kills per set on .364 hitting. Londot, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter was the AVCA National Freshman of the Year in 2020 and is leading the team with 4.22 kills per set on .251 hitting this season as a junior.
“I feel like we all know that Big Ten season is a grind and the Big Ten conference for volleyball is by far the best conference of volleyball,” Krause said. “So I think we know that you’ve got to show up every day, every game, no matter who you’re playing on the other side of the net. We’ve got 20 matches over the next 10 weeks to prove the kind of team that we can be when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament, so I feel like we all know the challenge it brings and we’re all excited for that.”
First serve against Michigan State on Friday is set for 7 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network Plus. Nebraska Public Media will televise Saturday’s match against Ohio Sate, which is set for a 7 p.m. start as well.
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.