After arguably the toughest month of volleyball that any team in the country has or will face this season, the Huskers can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Nebraska has played seven matches against teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the AVCA Coaches Poll with six of them coming within the span of four weeks. The Huskers have lost their last five matches against top-10 foes with a win against current No. 9 Creighton in the nonconference and a five-set victory over now No. 4 Illinois at the end of September being their only Ws.
Barring No. 13 Purdue or No. 14 Michigan climbing up into the top-10 (which has consisted of the same 10 teams in each of the last eight polls), Friday will bring Nebraska’s last match against a top-10 team during the regular season.
No. 7 Penn State is coming to town.
The Nittany Lions were one of those teams that defeated the Huskers last month as Nebraska fell in five at University Park, ending a streak of six straight Nebraska wins in the series.
Coach John Cook is fond of saying that any win in the Big Ten is a good win, and that is certainly true. But Nebraska needs more than just a “good” win — like the one the Huskers got at Ohio State on Oct. 24 that snapped a three-match losing streak.
Nebraska needs a big win, and there’s no bigger win for the Huskers than one against their arch rival, the team Cook set as the standard when the Huskers joined the Big Ten.
Sure, a top-10 win would look great for Nebraska’s postseason resume. The Huskers are currently 4-6 against top-25 teams and their RPI is only good for 14th in the country. Nebraska is 16-6 overall and just 7-5 in Big Ten play, well behind first-place Minnesota with a perfect 13-0 record. However, this win would be more important than simply being a feather in Nebraska’s cap.
The truth is this is a young team and most of the players on the roster haven’t ever been in this spot before. The Huskers are used to winning, and Nebraska has been losing. A lot. The Huskers have lost five of their last seven.
This is not a confident volleyball team.
“It could be loss of confidence, but I don’t really know if that confidence was even there in the first place, to be honest with you,” senior libero, co-captain and two-time national champion Kenzie Maloney said after Nebraska’s loss to Illinois last Saturday. “I think that’s something that we really need to work on. When the game gets to 20-20, we’re not confident enough to pass the ball perfect, take big swings, remember our assignments and stuff like that. I think that’s what we really need to work on is just having that confidence in the first place, and then once we get it, using it in tight games.”
Nebraska is playing seven freshmen or sophomores (as part of a nine-woman rotation) on a regular basis, and even when the team was rolling (it won 14 straight matches before running into the Big Ten buzzsaw), there were still cracks in the armor that would prove to be too much to overcome against better competition.
That being said, Nebraska is still competing in every one of these losses. The Huskers have had several chances to extend or outright win some of these tough matches but simply haven’t been able to make enough plays late in matches. That lack of confidence from the young Huskers rears its head when the game is on the line.
“Honestly, I think we’ve been playing timid,” said senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, Nebraska’s other co-captain. “We just have that mindset in the back of our minds, even if it’s not up there, that we don’t won’t want to make mistakes and obviously no one wants to let the team down, but I think we just need to get rid of that and play fearless and know that if you do mess up, well, you’ve got the next point. I think that’s something that we really need to change and that’s why we’re losing sets by two points.”
Foecke said she’s seeing that timidness in every fact of the game, from serving to passing to setting to attacking. Foecke said that regardless of the results, she’s seen both improvement and regression from her team in recent weeks.
“I think that we’ve been making a conscious effort to do certain things more, and I can see improvement in those,” Foecke said. “I think in other things, we’ve kind of backed down a little bit. I think at the beginning of the year when you have a young team, they don’t know what to expect and so they kind of just go out swinging and that’s that. I think that we’ve kind of backed down on that. But I see us coming together more as a team and doing the little things better, so I think that we can get back there. I mean, we had it at one point.”
Foe Maloney, steadying that improvement and halting the regression begins on the practice floor, a place where the Huskers have gotten the chance to spend more time this week.
“At times there are obviously things that we need to take care of in practice first before we go out and play in a match because practice is where it starts and that’s where you get better, that’s where you learn to not make the mistakes that you make out in the game,” Maloney said. “I think it definitely just starts in practice. We need to be better and hold ourselves to a higher standard in practice first.”
Cook is hoping the lessons from playing against the best of the best and coming up short are starting to sink in for his team.
“I’m proud of how hard we’re competing,” Cook said after the loss to Illinois. “We’ve got to learn how to compete at end game and win and execute, and that’s not what we’re doing. I hope as we’re going through all this that we’re going to learn how to do that, but we’re learning how to battle. That was a great match tonight; there was some great volleyball, great rallies. Our crowd’s probably exhausted. That was a long, hard match. We did the same thing at Minnesota, we did the same thing at Wisconsin — long, hard matches. So we’re learning the grind and point-by-point mentality.”
Nebraska is certainly going to need that point-by-point mentality on Friday night. It can’t afford to be timid. It needs to find that confidence.
While another Big Ten championship is no longer in the cards in all likelihood (Minnesota has that all but wrapped up at this point), Nebraska’s postseason goals are still very much in play. Cook said from the start the Nebraska team at the end of the season wouldn’t look anything like the one at the beginning of it. Cook has a knack for getting his teams to play their best volleyball at the right time of year.
If Nebraska still hopes to grow into a title contender, a win on Friday night would go a long way towards proving the Huskers are on the right path.
First serve against the Nittany Lions is set for 7 p.m. 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.