John Cook’s message on Monday was simple: a new season starts this week. The Huskers often refer to the nonconference as the preseason, and now the real thing starts as the Huskers head to Evanston on Wednesday to open conference play against Northwestern.
“Fired up to start the Big Ten this week, and this is where our season really starts, especially with this team,” Cook said. “We’ve been messing around a lot and we’ve got to dial it in. Our goal is to win the Big Ten, so we have to perform Wednesday and do it on the road and every match in the Big Ten is tough, so hopefully our players understand that and are going to take it up a notch.”
That “messing around” likely is referring to the constant lineup changes, from match to match and set to set, that we’ve seen as Cook has tried to find a group that clicked. None of them really did, but Cook said he’s identified a lineup anyway.
“We’ll be making a decision on which way we’re going and we’re going to go with it for a while,” Cook said. “I don’t want anybody worried about looking over their shoulder, am I playing, am I starting this match or not? There’s a saying, ‘Men battle to bond and women bond to battle.’ And I think by mixing things up like that, we don’t get that core group that they’re used to having.
“But also, I can look them in the eye and say ‘Listen, I’ve given everybody a chance. You’ve all had a great chance.’ You look at their stats, everybody’s had the same number of swings, the same number of games played. So I’ve given everybody a chance and that was part of the risk. Now we have to dial it up.”
Saturday wrapped up a stretch of four straight matches against top-20 opponents. The Huskers lost the last three after opening the second half of the nonconference slate with a sweep over a ranked Creighton team in Omaha. Nebraska fell to Utah in five sets at home, to Stanford in four on the road and to Louisville in three at home. That followed a 6-0 start to the season.
“We learned a lot and hopefully our younger players understand the level of competition every day,” Cook said. “So I definitely think we got some really, really good lessons taught, and we got humbled pretty good in some of the matches. I think it was productive. Hopefully it’s going to help us in the Big Ten; that’s the whole goal.”
The nonconference ended on a particularly sour note as the Louisville match was probably the most humbling loss yet.
“I had to pull out my barf bag from the airline flight,” Cook said, referring to his film review of the match. “There’s a good quote for you guys, huh? … It just wasn’t the same team I see every day. I don’t know if his nerves, pressure, Dani [Busboom Kelly] coming back, Louisville played great. But we didn’t perform, nobody did. There’s not really one positive from that match for us.”
Cook said the team has been great on the practice court; the Huskers have just struggled to translate that success to the matches.
Eleven of the 14 Big Ten teams made it through the nonconference with winning records. Three of them are undefeated. The Huskers are dead last in hitting percentage and fifth in opponent hitting percentage. But all of that is in the past, and a new season starts on Wednesday.
“You can throw all that out,” Cook said. “It’s the Big Ten now. None of that really matters. So, this is a new season starting over. Some teams played tough, some teams did not play tough. Stats really don’t matter up to this point because the levels of competition are so different. But we played two top-10 teams in Stanford — I mean, Stanford’s not there yet, but they’re a top-10 team, maybe a top-five team. Louisville is obviously a top-10 team, and Creighton is certainly a top-20 team, if not better than that. We’ve got some good challenges, which will help prepare us for the Big Ten.”
The Huskers dropped six spots to No. 12 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll. It’s the first time Nebraska has dropped out of the top 10 since week four of the 2017 season.
The top five remained unchanged including Louisville holding steady at No. 5. Stanford climbed two spots after beating the Huskers, up to No. 14. Utah went 0-2 after beating Nebraska and fell from No. 10 to No. 15. Creighton moved up one spot to No. 17.
Wisconsin (8-0) is No. 2 again behind only Texas, receiving 11 first-place votes. Ohio State (10-0) is right behind the Badgers at No. 3 once again. Purdue (7-1) climbed from No. 9 into a tie for seventh. Minnesota (4-3) moved up two spots to No. 9. Penn State (7-3) held steady at No. 20. Michigan is among others receiving votes with six points, good for 33rd.
Nebraska will open Big Ten play against the only two Big Ten teams with losing records: Northwestern on Wednesday and Iowa at home on Saturday.