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‘Throw it to J.J.’: How John Cook Wants Nebraska to Win Close Games

September 27, 2022

No. 3 Nebraska scored its first top-10 win of the season on Saturday, though it wasn’t pretty. Nebraska dug itself a 2-1 hole against No. 6 Ohio State before rallying to win sets four and five in front of a fired up Devaney Center crowd.

“It was a heck of a match, I thought; very intense,” Coach John Cook said on Tuesday after getting a chance to watch the film. “We didn’t play super clean like we can. I don’t know if Ohio State feels that way, but we made a lot of big plays and found a way to get to game five, which was huge. I thought if we could get to game five, we’d have a chance if we could put it together, and and we did and made a couple of big plays. That’s what I’ve been challenging in our team, you want to win two-point games, you’ve got to make big plays when it matters most.” 

“Two points better” is one of the team’s themes and the mantra that drove them throughout the offseason after losing so many close games last season. The Huskers dropped a deuce game in the second set, but found a way to win by two in the fifth. Cook used the San Diego Chargers of the late 1970s as an example, recounting the story of coach Don Coryell telling quarterback Dan Fouts “throw it to J.J.” when the Chargers needed to make a play late. J.J. was John Jefferson, the first receiver in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons while also catching 36 touchdown passes.

“It comes down to ‘Hey, you’ve got to throw it to the right guy and make a big play,” Cook said. “And for us, it’s setting the right person, it’s making a big play, serving a tough serve. We lost a lot of close games last year and I’ve been on them the whole year about winning those close matches. They did a great job and we made a couple of really big plays.”

Who is Nebraska’s J.J.?

“We’ve got a lot, but it depends who’s in the front row,” Cook said. “It’s Whitney [Lauenstein] and Madi [Kubik] that have been emerging, Lindsay Krause has made some big plays. We also have to make a big serve; we served really tough at the end there and gave us chances. And Bekka Allick had a huge kill, which we couldn’t run that play all night and they run it in game five and she just, that was an impressive play by her, Anni [Evans] setting her and Bekka killing it. So I want everybody to feel like they’re the J.J.s.” 

It wouldn’t have mattered how open J.J. was if Fouts couldn’t get him the ball in the right spot, however, and that’s something Nebraska is still working on. With Nicklin Hames sidelined, sophomore Kennedi Orr has stepped into the starting role and rotated with Evans in the 6-2. Cook has been pretty consistent with his measured criticism of Orr’s performance, particularly the accuracy of her setting, but she stopped up late against the Buckeyes.

“What was great for her was in game five, she went competitive mode and played really well,” Cook said. “That was good to see because it could have gone a lot of different ways. But she’s a great competitor and she really stepped it up and game five.”

Nebraska is currently sixth in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .246 though 10 matches, though that number drops to ninth at .172 if you look solely at the first weekend of conference play. The pins need to terminate at a higher rate, but the setting has a lot to do with that as well.

“Location, tempo, decision-making — we’ve got two pretty young setters, so that’s an area we can really improve,” Cook said.

Cook is hoping to see Hames back on the practice court soon, perhaps as early as this week, but she was still working with Director of Olympic Sports Performance Brian Kmitta during Monday’s practice. Hames has missed the last three matches with a back injury.

Ally Batenhorst has also been sidelined by injury recently after leaving the Creighton match in the first set with a sore abdominal muscle. She suited up with the team for the first time since the injury on Friday against Michigan State, but did not play.

With Nebraska struggling to terminate against Ohio State in the second set on Saturday, Cook gave Batenhorst a shot as the second outside hitter alongside Kubik. In the third set, he moved her to the right side in place of Maggie Mendelson for a few rallies before re-inserting the freshman to finish the match. Batenhorst had one kill and one error on four swings and recording two digs.

“It’s hard,” Cook said about Batenhorst working her way back into the rotation. “I saw an opportunity to get her in just so she starts getting used to getting back into the match. Because she’s got to show us in practice that she deserves to be out there.”

Nebraska will look to take another step forward this week as it hits the road for a pair of matches on the east coast. The Huskers will play at Rutgers on Friday and at Maryland on Sunday.

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