LINCOLN, Neb. – Fresh off beating two top 10 teams in Eugene, Oregon, as part of the VERT Challenge, the Nebraska volleyball team has been voted the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in the latest AVCA coaches poll.
No. 3 Texas, who the Huskers swept on Saturday, received three votes and were ranked second in the preseason poll while No. 11 Stanford received one in the preseason poll with the Huskers receiving the other 61.
“I thought our team prepared well,” Coach John Cook said at his weekly press conference Monday. “We played well this past weekend and got off to a good start. That tournament can go a lot of different ways. Last year we were two points away from being 0-2 in that thing. It’s a tough tournament. It’s a good test to see where we’re at. We know what we really have to work hard on this week.”
The Longhorns defeated the Huskers in five sets in last year’s VERT Challenge in Austin, but Nebraska got its revenge in the national championship with a sweep. For the third time in a calendar year the former conference rivals faced off and the Huskers took the rubber match 25-15, 25-16, 25-21. Following the match, senior outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen said Cook showed a bit more emotion than the players were used to.
“He had everyone come in for a little group hug and he actually sort of teared up and cried,” Rolfzen said. “It might have been just because people thought we only won [last year] because we were in Omaha. He told us that ‘you guys are putting in the work to become unstoppable,’ which is one of his themes this year.”
Rolfzen said she didn’t have anyone tell her in person that they only won the championship because of the home court advantage, but that the sentiment was definitely floating around the program.
“It was just something that I know people have been hearing from other people, that just because we had our home fans and stuff like that, that was the only reason we won,” Rolfzen said. “No matter where we’re playing Nebraska is going to have the best fans. This year we go to Columbus and we’re probably going to have more fans than everyone else anyway. They can say that, but we knew that we just played really well.”
Five players finished with seven or more kills against the Longhorns led by Kadie Rolfzen with 11 kills and 11 digs.
The Huskers kicked off the season on Friday night against then-No. 10 Florida. They dropped the first set before rallying to win the next three to take the match 25-27, 25-15, 25-16, 25-21. Four Huskers finished with double-digit kills, again led by Kadie Rolfzen’s 16.
Nebraska’s balance offensively stands out on the box score, and junior setter Kelly Hunter played a big part in that according to Cook.
“Look at our stats,” Cook said. “We have almost everybody with double digit kills in every match or close to it. You look at our set distribution, the middles are getting a lot for middles and I can’t coach that; that’s an instinctive thing. The other setter I had that did that really well was Lauren [Cook].”
Hunter was rewarded for her play by being named co-Big Ten setter of the week along with Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini. Hunter led Nebraska to a .349 hitting percentage over the weekend and averaged 12.43 assists per set. She finished with 47 assists, 13 digs and seven kills in the season-opener against the Gators.
Cook offered his assessment of the team after seeing it in action.
“The strength of ours is serving and passing which we’ve been trying to put in our DNA for this team,” Cook said. “I thought their composure was really good; they stayed in the moment. Whenever Florida and Texas made runs we didn’t panic, so I really liked that. We have to work to get better at blocking and I think we can continue to smooth out our offense a little bit. We had some misconnects and miscommunication and things like that which is typical for the first weekend, but we have to work really hard on smoothing that out.”
Cook praised the play of his back row led by reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year libero Justine Wong-Orantes, who totaled a team-best 33 digs in the two matches.
“The pressure we put on them serving and the pressure we put on them digging, I don’t think they’re used to getting dug like that,” Cook said. “When you’re a hitter and you’re serving and you get dug, it starts messing with you a little bit. We’ve been there; we’ve had teams that have done that to us and it starts making you think a little bit, you start trying harder and then tense up a little bit. We dug some shots early and got into a really nice defensive rhythm.”
Cook said he has seen an increase in athleticism over the years and pointed to junior middle blocker Briana Holman as an example. Holman, an All-American at LSU as a sophomore, redshirted last season after transferring to Nebraska and racked up 18 kills and 10 blocks in her first two matches as a Husker.
“Briana Holman did some things I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Nebraska player do,” Cook said. “There were a couple times it looked like her belly button was above the net; that’s what it looked like from where I was sitting. That might be an exaggeration, but she can get up and hang in the air a long time.”
The Huskers other high-profile newcomer, Baylor graduate transfer Andie Malloy, earned a starting spot after beating out Olivia Boender and Annika Albrecht in practice leading up to the season.
“She was the best every day over the last two weeks stat-wise,” Cook said. “We statted those guys and had them rotate, and she had by far the best stats.”
Malloy finished with 21 kills in the two matches, but Cook said she got off to a rough start.
“She started off against Florida really nervous and really, game one was a struggle for her,” Cook said. “I was debating whether to yank her or not, but early season like that, you don’t want your players thinking, ‘OK, I made a couple mistakes, I’m getting yanked.’ I swallowed hard and left her in and she started playing really well.”
Now, Nebraska will turn its attention toward the next challenge – the Nebraska Invitational. The tournament includes Syracuse, Iowa State, Oregon State and Nebraska, with the Huskers taking on the Cyclones on Friday at 6 p.m. and the Beavers on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
“It will be nice to be in the Devaney,” Cook said. “It will be a great weekend with football opening up, so that’s always exciting. My challenge for the team will be, we’re in school and we’ve got to play a great team in Iowa State Friday night. Iowa State is always up for us. They’ve got a lot of Midwest kids, the same area where we recruit from. And then Oregon State, a Pac-12 team on Saturday. Another good weekend that will challenge us. We’ll have to play two great matches back-to-back, and we’ll have to prepare for that. In the Big Ten we’ll have to do that and then of course the NCAA Tournament. These first two weekends are a great preparation for the mindset of how we need to play two great matches and have very little preparation for the second match.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.