LINCOLN — With two straight final four appearances, an NCAA title and a Big Ten championship over the last two years, Nebraska volleyball is pretty unfamiliar with the underdog role.
But it didn’t take long for the Huskers to learn how to feed off the perception of being overlooked, senior captain Kelly Hunter said Monday. At least part of NU’s undefeated start to Big Ten play can be credited to the emotional lift from hearing offseason whispers that after the Huskers’ loss of three All-Americans, maybe it was time for one of their conference rivals to shine.
“For us, we took that as a challenge,” Hunter said. “Like, ‘OK, well we’re going to surprise people, and we’re going to be just as good, if not better, than we were last year.’ ”
Nebraska (13-3, 6-0 Big Ten), which remained at No. 4 in Monday’s coaches’ poll, finished its third unbeaten week to start Big Ten play, picking up a four-set win over then-No. 14 Michigan State and sweeping Iowa. The wins kept NU alone atop the Big Ten standings and moved the Huskers up one spot to No. 5 in the NCAA RPI.
No one, including the Huskers themselves, would have predicted a 6-0 start to the conference season, which has included wins
over four teams ranked in the top 11 of this week’s coaches’ poll. Yet, Hunter said, while it made sense to factor the Huskers’ personnel losses into preseason predictions, it also was wise not to look sideways at who Nebraska had coming back.
The Huskers have played seven true or redshirt freshmen this year, but the bulk of NU’s starters had experience prior to this season, even if some of their roles have changed.
Before her breakout campaign this fall as an outside hitter, senior Annika Albrecht was one of the team’s top servers and defenders. Junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, playing all six rotations for the first time in her career, still took plenty of high-pressure swings her first two years.
Hunter is in her third season as the starting setter, senior middle blocker Briana Holman is a second-year starter and a former LSU All-American, and NU’s back row is anchored by two upperclassmen — junior libero Kenzie Maloney and senior defensive specialist Sydney Townsend — giving the team an on-court maturity that helps weather ups and downs.
“What’s impressed me most is how well we’re playing together,” Hunter said, “and how well we’re playing point by point, and just kind of focusing on going to the next point rather than errors that we’ve been making. Because I know in the past, we’d kind of dwell on errors.”
Nebraska’s experience kept the team on an even keel through adversity in the season’s first month when the Huskers lost their first two matches with Hunter injured and dropped a stunner to No. 20 Northern Iowa. The team responded by making it unscathed through the first three weeks of a tough Big Ten slate that doesn’t get any easier this week.
Nebraska first travels to No. 11 Wisconsin (11-4, 2-4) for an 8 p.m. match on Wednesday in a rematch of NU’s five-set win in Lincoln on Sept. 30. That match was the first of three straight losses for the Badgers, who also dropped a five-setter at home to No. 6 Minnesota and lost in four at No. 10 Michigan State last week.
After Wednesday’s match, the Huskers have to try to slow the red-hot offense of No. 16 Purdue (15-2, 5-1) Saturday night in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Boilermakers haven’t faced any other Big Ten heavyweights yet, but they have the nation’s second-best hitting percentage (.349) and boast one of the conference’s best attackers in outside hitter Danielle Cuttino, who leads the league in kills during Big Ten matches (4.84 per set).
By the end of the week Nebraska will have played 11 of its 18 matches against teams ranked in this week’s top 20. If the Huskers still lead the Big Ten at the end of that stretch, you could use many superlatives to describe the team’s play.
Just don’t call it altogether unforeseeable.
“I think me personally, and the whole team as a group, we knew we were going to surprise people,” Hunter said, “and that’s what we were going for.”
Badgers still dangerous
Nebraska coach John Cook said Monday video of Wisconsin’s three straight losses wouldn’t reveal anything different about preparing for the Badgers than if they had won.
He still sees a dangerous, balanced team that had the Huskers on the ropes at the Devaney Center, winning the first two sets before NU rallied to win in five.
“They lost by two (points in the fifth set) to Minnesota. They had chances to beat Michigan State. They lost in a fifth game to us,” Cook said. “It’s the Big Ten. There’s going to be a lot of close matches. We have to go up there with the mindset we’re going to have to try and win a really close match.”
Cook said he’s happy his team gets to give Wisconsin its sole focus leading up to the rematch. Nebraska faced the Badgers the first time the day after the Huskers played Minnesota, forcing Cook and his staff to split up the week’s practices preparing for two top-10 teams.
“We’ve got two days now to really work on Wisconsin,” Cook said, “and hopefully (we’ll) have a really good game plan, and our players really understand it and can follow it.”