LINCOLN — Two weeks remain in the regular season, and for the Nebraska volleyball team, a Big Ten championship could still be in the cards. But with the next three matches coming on the road, coach John Cook said Monday the Huskers can’t afford to misplay their hand in matches at Ohio State and Maryland this weekend.
“Fortunately, we’re in the game where the ante is getting pretty high,” Cook said at his weekly press conference. “It’s an important week, and we’re going to have to go and be able to play two great matches back to back on the road.”
Nebraska (22-4, 15-1 Big Ten), which moved up one spot to No. 5 in Monday’s coaches poll, ran its winning streak to nine matches after sweeping Maryland and Rutgers at the Devaney Center last week. But No. 1 Penn State also has been on a tear, winning 15 straight since being swept by the Huskers on Sept. 22.
It remains the Nittany Lions’ only loss of the year, meaning the
Big Ten title could come down to Thanksgiving weekend when Nebraska hosts Iowa, and Penn State plays No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 7 Minnesota, both on the road. The Huskers and Lions would be co-champs if both win out.
“I don’t think Penn State is going to lose,” Cook said. “Now, they’ve got some tough matches, but so do we. You’ve just got to assume they’re not going to lose.”
The Huskers will have plenty of recent examples to ward off complacency this weekend against two teams in the lower half of the league standings. Eighth-place Ohio State (14-13, 7-9) has earned wins over Nebraska in each of the last three seasons and will try to make it four years in a row at 5 p.m. Friday in Columbus in the teams’ only scheduled meeting this season.
Despite an up-and-down year, the Buckeyes pushed Penn State to five sets in St. John Arena before losing on Oct. 6 and scored a five-set upset at Wisconsin on Nov. 3.
Saturday, the Huskers face Maryland in a quick rematch of Nebraska’s 3-0 win at the Devaney Center last Wednesday. Cook said he expects a much tougher effort from the Terrapins at home, where they upset No. 15 Purdue in five sets on Oct. 29.
“It’s Big Ten. It’s back to back,” Cook said. “We’ve got to be able to grind for two matches, and whatever happens Friday we’ve got to mentally prepare to have another great effort Saturday.”
It’s not just the Big Ten title that hangs in the balance in the next two weeks. The Huskers are still jockeying to be one of the top four seeds for the NCAA tournament when brackets are released Nov. 26. While Nebraska was No. 2 in the rankings the NCAA volleyball selection committee unveiled on Nov. 1, the committee has been known to factor RPI rankings in to seeding selections.
Nebraska was No. 6 in the most recent RPI on Monday, and won’t get much strength-of-schedule help from its remaining opponents. At No. 38, Ohio State has the highest RPI of NU’s four remaining opponents, which hold an average RPI of 52 this week.
It’s hard to imagine Nebraska not getting one of the four national No. 1 seeds if the Huskers win out. But even one more loss could mean the Huskers would have to go on the road and beat a team like Texas, Stanford or Penn State in order to reach the final four in Kansas City.
“I don’t spend a lot of time and energy worrying about (seeding),” Cook said. “There’s still a lot of big matches yet to be played in all the conferences. All I know is we have a lot of great wins, so we’ll see. I used to worry about all that stuff. I don’t worry about it anymore because it’s completely out of our control.”
NU bolsters defensive ranking
While Nebraska racked up eye-popping hitting percentages during its recent home stand, hitting .425 over its last three matches, Cook said Monday he places more weight on NU’s defensive metrics.
The Huskers held Maryland, Indiana and Rutgers to a combined .040 hitting percentage, lowering Nebraska’s opponent attack percentage to a league-low .163.
“Our goal is to be the best defensive team in the conference,” Cook said. “We’ve got a shot to do that. That’s something we’re really stressing with our team.”
Nebraska has led the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage in each of its two conference championship seasons (2011, 2016), and the conference standings often track closely to the margin between a team’s own attack percentage and what it allows opponents to hit.
This season, NU is one of only two Big Ten teams, joining Penn State, to have a hitting percentage more than 100 points greater than its opponent in conference matches.
Cook excited about recruits
Nebraska signed four players for the class of 2018 last Wednesday, all of whom were ranked in the top 55 on PrepVolleyball.com’s list of Senior Aces.
With the Huskers graduating four senior regulars from this year’s team, Cook said it’s important for each of the incoming freshmen to be able to compete right away.
“I think they’re all pretty tough, competitive kids,” he said. “I think they all have the chance to be elite players depending on how hard they work and how they adapt to college.”
The class is headlined by setter Nicklin Hames, the nation’s No. 4 overall prospect according to PrepVolleyball, who led her Webb School team to five straight Tennessee state championships, including one as a varsity starter in eighth grade. She was named MVP of the state tournament four times and also played on the U.S. junior national team last summer.
“She has a great volleyball mind. She is one heck of a competitor,” Cook said. “She’s kind of a combination of Lauren Cook and Kelly Hunter.”
But the recruiting might not be finished for next season. In 2018, the Huskers will be looking to replace graduating senior Annika Albrecht and junior Olivia Boender, who retired from the sport earlier this year.
NU signed outside hitter Capri Davis of Mansfield, Texas, the No. 21 recruit for 2018, but Cook said he could be in search of a transfer outside hitter to join a group next season that also includes three-year starter Mikaela Foecke and freshman reserve Sami Slaughter.
“We’re a little thin, if you look at our roster next year, at outside hitter,” Cook said. “So we have to do something.”