Nebraska capped off the preseason with a title at the Husker Invite, navigating the 2018 nonconference schedule with nine straight wins after dropping the season opener. This week, the gauntlet that is the Big Ten begins and that means it’s time for the return of Coach John Cook’s favorite poker-related phrase.
“We had a pretty good weekend,” Cook said. “We got better as the weekend went on, so I’m happy with that. Now, what I’ll be stressing to our team this week is the the ante goes up, it’s Big Ten, it’s the second part of the season. Now it’s a 10-week grind. Hopefully our freshmen figure it out this week.”
The Huskers moved up to No. 3 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll after No. 2 Stanford beat then-No. 3 Texas twice last week. Six other Big Ten teams — No. 4 Penn State, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 8 Illinois, No. 16 Purdue and No. 18 Michigan — also appear in this week’s top 25, tied with the Pac-12 for most ranked teams from a single conference.
“Last week there were five teams in the top 10, so that’s a start; I think there were seven or eight or nine in the top 25,” Cook said about the strength of the league this year. “That also can be deceiving because a lot of teams are working on things, they play in tournaments, they play two matches a day. Now it’s just one match a night or two on a weekend. The big thing is you have to be ready to play every night.”
For the second straight week, the conference honored a Husker with one of its weekly awards as freshman middle Blocker Callie Schwarzenbach was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after averaging 2.7 blocks per set in Nebraska's three wins at the Husker Invite over the weekend.
“It makes me feel pretty good, just that I can contribute to the team and show that we’re all just one," the 6-foot-5 freshman said after recording 13 blocks against New Mexico on Friday. "It’s not just me; it’s the pin-blockers and just our communication that’s helped me contribute.”
Schwarzenbach's 1.6 blocks-per-set average has her second in the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin's 6-foot-8 freshman Dana Rettke at 1.9 per set.
The Huskers will continue their season-long stretch of playing within state borders as Nebraska opens conference play at home against the two teams from Michigan. The Wolverines will travel to Lincoln for a Friday showdown with the Huskers, and Cook said there are going to be a lot of familiar faces from last season across the net.
“The core is [the same]; they have a couple freshmen, but their core returns — their setter, outside hitter [Carly] Skjodt,” Cook said. “They graduated Abby Cole, they graduated the lefty, so they’ve got a couple new players but the core of their team’s back. They’ve got that middle who’s a big, physical middle, [Cori] Crocker. I think they’re one of the teams that returned the most.”
The Wolverines are coming off back-to-back wins over Notre Dame that closed out an undefeated preseason at 11-0. The Wolverines swept the the Fighting Irish on Friday then beat them again on Sunday, this time in four sets. Michigan is 33-1 in sets so far this season.
“We tell them flat-out that it’s another level now; these teams are going to be prepared for us,” Cook said. “When you play three matches in a weekend, you can’t prepare for everybody. They’re going to be dialed in, they’re going to try to exploit our weaknesses, and we get to do the same with them. Like I said, the ante goes up, so we’ve got to execute and perform at a higher level to hang in the Big Ten and compete for championships.”
The Huskers showed a different look in their last two matches following the insertion of sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun and are still in the process of ironing everything out, but despite some miscues caused by unfamiliarity the Huskers still had a dominant 3-0 weekend.
“Lexi gives us a little more experience,” Cook said. “We’ve still got a lot of things to work out. We’ve still got to tweak some things. I’m still trying to figure out what our best lineup is and who to have passing next to who and all that because one person in there changes that. We’re just trying to get better right now each week and play great starting this week, every night. I still think we have a lot of development to do with where we’re at, but we put up good numbers in the nonconference, better than last year. That’s the only thing I can go by, what our numbers are and we put up some pretty good numbers. When you play a tournament and hit .370 for the weekend, that’s pretty good.”
The addition of Sun to pair with senior Mikaela Foecke gives Nebraska two outside hitters that can play all six rotations, which allows Cook to get more creative with his substitutions and maintains an offensive presence from the back row in every roatation.
“That’s why we like having two outsides that play all the way around,” Cook said. “I’d love some day to have all three outsides playing all the way around. It just makes a really good lineup, and then you have great chemistry out there, too.”
Sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet isn’t quite there yet, but that’s the goal for her according to what Cook has said in the past. Cook pointed back to the 2005 team as one who had the depth of six-rotation hitters Cook desires.
“That’s what I call the ultimate system: no libero, setters go in and out for the middles, four outsides play all the way around,: Cook said. “We should have won a natty.”
That 2005 team featured Jordan Larson, Sarah Pavan, Christina Houghtelling and Jennifer Saleaumua, all four of whom hit better than .275 and averaged more than 2.3 kills per set.
Friday’s match is set to begin at the Devaney Center at 8 p.m. on BTN. On Sunday at 2 p.m., the Huskers will host Michigan State, the top team among those just outside the top 25 receiving votes.
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.