When Nebraska took the court for the first time this season, back on August 25 in Gainesville, when the Huskers lost to Oregon, and then the next day, when they lost to Florida, well, this is like a completely different team now.
“No question,” veteran coach John Cook said. “We’re much different.”
Since that opening-weekend trip, Nebraska has gone 22-2, losing before the Big Ten season began to Northern Iowa and then at Wisconsin a little more than a month ago. The Huskers, who opened the Big Ten season by sweeping at and giving Penn State its only loss, are 15-1 in the conference.
Has it gone as Cook expected?
“I’m so in the moment that I don’t think about that,” he said. “it’s just how do we get better, how do we pick things we need to get better at, how do we win the next match.
“But my whole theme this year has been ‘Good to great to unstoppable.’
“And I knew that coming out of the gate that we weren’t going to have Kelly, so I told our team and media here that we’re just going to try to be good the first month.
“And you know when you get to the Big Ten you have to be great,” he said with a laugh, “because if you’re not playing great in the Big Ten it’s gonna be tough, and then if we continue to improve and continue to put all these pieces together and have the drive and the motivation, we could reach our goal, which is to be unstoppable by the (NCAA) tournament starts.”
But back to that first weekend, when senior setter Kelly Hunter sat out with an injury and Cook had two new assistants at his side, Tyler Hildebrand and Kayla Banwarth.
“We’ve hit a home run with this staff, he said.
But there was no doubt he was out of his comfort zone early on with his two former assistants now head coaches, Dani Busboom Kelly at Louisville and Chris Tamas at Illinois. As an aside, surprising Louisville is in a three-way tie for the ACC lead and Illinois, while standing in sixth place in the B1G, has an RPI of 27.
“A big part of it is Kelly was out and it’s also having my coaching staff all on the same page,” Cook said. “We’re all teaching and promoting the same things now. Tyler had two weeks, basically (to prepare for the season) and that’s kicked in a lot more than it had (in August).
“We have players now that have fulfilled roles they had never played before.”
That includes junior Mikaela Foecke and senior Annika Albrecht becoming six-rotation outsides and junior Kenzie Maloney moving to libero full time.
“Those are three players who have played, but they’re in completely new roles,” Cook said.
He noted the improvement of redshirt-freshman middle Lauren Stivrins and freshman Jazz Sweet.
“They’ve done a nice, solid job for us and continue to get better and have played pretty well against the best teams.”
Nebraska, which lost in last year’s NCAA semifinals, is ranked No. 5 in the latest AVCA Division I Coaches Poll, No. 6 in the NCAA RPI, and No. 1 in the Pablo ranking, which is put together by an extremely dedicated volleyball fan and published at RichKern.com.
The Pablo, according to NCAA Division I volleyball committee chairman Lisa Peterson, “isn’t a defined source like RPI, but some committee members use it in making their personal decisions.”
And that’s important to Cook, whose team finishes the regular season with a match at Ohio State on Friday, over to Maryland on Saturday, at Northwestern on November 22 and then at home for Iowa on November 25. Those four matches won’t do much, if anything, to boost Nebraska’s RPI.
“Ohio State has been a thorn in our side every year,” Cook said. “They beat us last year, they beat us the year before … they beat Purdue, they beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin, they’ve got our attention.”
Cook laments the losses to Northern Iowa at a September tournament in Omaha and at Wisconsin.
“I still worry that we might get them in the tournament,” Cook said of UNI. “They played great against us.
“And we hit a lull at Wisconsin. We’d been on the road and we were struggling a couple of weeks there although they played great. I still think they’re the best team we’ve played, that night.”
Earlier in the season Nebraska had to go five to beat Wisconsin at home. It’s obviously a tough matchup for the Huskers.
“Wisconsin played great both times we played them. They served, they passed, they played defense, they ran great attacks, their outsides were low error. It’s just hard to beat ‘em and I’m shocked where they’re at (Wisconsin is 17-8 overall, 8-8 in the B1G) in the conference. I’m shocked.”
Wisconsin, of course, will get another chance in the NCAA Tournament. And Purdue, which is coming off upsets of then No. 5 Minnesota and No. 10 Wisconsin, who are now No. 7 and No. 13, respectively.
“After we played them, I told everybody you’d better hope you don’t get Purdue in your bracket,” Cook said. “And then look at what they did last weekend.”
As the season comes down the home stretch, Nebraska needs to obviously close out and get some help to become a top-four NCAA Tournament seed, which means playing at home for the third and fourth rounds. And few teams have a home-court advantage like Nebraska when the Huskers are in Lincoln and the sold-out Devaney Center.
One thing in Nebraska’s favor is 10 victories over teams ranked in the top 25 at the time.
“We’ve got potentially an All-American or all-conference player at every position,” Cook said. “The question marks were the two freshmen, and at times they’ve been really good. Foecke’s proven, Kenzie’s been in big matches, Anni’s been in big matches, and Briana (Holman) has been in big matches. You look at them and see they can go up against the best players.
“So the big question marks were how were going to be as a team and how would those freshmen develop.”
By all accounts pretty well.