The Nebraska volleyball team has dropped three straight matches and four of its last five, but despite the final results Coach John Cook isn’t worried at the halfway mark of the Big Ten season.
“We played three top-10 teams in eight days and I thought we got better and played some good volleyball,” Cook said. “We’ve got to learn how to win those but when I look at our team compared to the other teams, where they’re at right now, first of all, I think it’s Final Four-level volleyball because I feel like we just got finished with a Final Four, and more to come. You look at Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota, they’ve got very experienced setters, all those guys have been together for a lot longer than we have and I think that’s their edge right now. We’ve got five weeks to try to catch them and finish out and have a good second half in the Big Ten and try to get to the NCAA Tournament and see how far we can go.”
The Huskers lost in five at Wisconsin on Wednesday and in four at Minnesota on Saturday. Nebraska is sitting at 15-5 overall and 6-4 in conference play. Following the 0-2 week, Nebraska dropped to No. 9 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll. Minnesota (16-2, 10-0) and Penn State (17-3, 8-2) held steady at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively. Illinois (18-3, 7-3) jumped up a spot to No. 7 and Wisconsin (14-4, 7-3) leapfrogged Texas as well as Nebraska and is sitting at No. 7. Michigan (18-3, 7-3) jumped ahead of Florida at No. 12 and Purdue (17-4, 6-4) rounds out Big Ten teams in the poll at No. 17.
Cook said his players are going to be great handling the adversity that faces them in large part because of the leadership of the team’s senior co-captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney.
“Foecke and Kenzie are the winningest seniors in college volleyball right now — they’ve won more matches than anybody,” Cook said. “I just think that doesn’t sit well with them and they’re helping this team figure out what we have to do along with our coaches.”
“I just think we have a lot of motivated people,” Cook continued. “They’re not happy with that. One thing I’ve learned is we get everybody’s best shot and everybody loves to beat us, so there are some major celebrations going on. I don’t know if our new players understand how fired up teams get to play Nebraska.”
Times are tough right now in Lincoln but Cook said he thinks this experience will only serve to help the team get to where it needs to be to have postseason success.
“I think it’s going to make this group be more determined and understand the level that they have to play at, the discipline they have to have — they can’t take plays off, they can’t take plays off in practice,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re learning — this is a grind and it is a point-by-point mentality, and now we have to have that for the next five weeks. We can talk about it all we want, but until you go through it you don’t really understand it.”
The Huskers have been through it now, but they’re not out of the tunnel yet. This week features a trip to Ohio State on Wednesday to cap off the Huskers’ four-match road trip before returning home to take on another top-10 team in the Illini on Saturday night.
Despite dropping six-of-nine sets last week, Nebraska’s opponents only outscored the Huskers by 11 total points. The Huskers have shown they can win sets against anyone; now they just have to get over the hump and turn those set wins into match wins.
“It’s just consistency and making good plays and being good after 20 points,” Cook said. “It’s hard to create that in practice; we’ve got to go through it. I look back to 2015, we lost back-to-back and then we went on a run. In this conference, you’re going to lose matches unless you have a really, really special team. Minnesota may run the table, but this is a tough conference. We’re playing a top-10 team again this week, we’re playing a top-10 team again next week plus Ohio State on the road who’s already beaten Penn State. There are no easy matches and our players are learning that you just have to find a way to try to survive and win these matches the best you can, and if you don’t you get another shot the next week.”
First serve against the Buckeyes is set for 6 p.m. on Wednesday on BTN. Saturday’s match against the Illini at the Devaney Center, also on BTN, will start at 7 p.m. The Huskers beat Illinois in four sets in Champaign on Sept. 29.
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.