LINCOLN — With rosters full of All-Americans, the last couple of Nebraska teams spoke openly about their goals of winning conference and NCAA titles.
But with four new starters in 2017, that kind of talk has been muted, at least outside the locker room, coach John Cook said Monday during his weekly press conference. Even though the Huskers are tied for first in the Big Ten with three weeks left in the regular season, no one is counting down the victories needed to clinch what would be a surprise repeat conference title just yet.
“We’re too far away. We’re worried about winning the next point and how we’re going to beat Maryland,” Cook said. “This team has done a great job of staying in the moment, and we’re going to continue to do that. Can’t start looking too far ahead. There’s a lot of volleyball left to be played.”
None of NU’s six remaining matches will come against a ranked opponent, but Cook had a handful of cautionary tales at the ready Monday he could use to prevent No. 6 Nebraska (20-4, 13-1 Big Ten) from looking any further than Wednesday’s 6 p.m. match against Maryland (16-10, 5-9) at the Devaney Center, in which the Huskers will look to extend their nation-leading home winning streak to 26 matches.
No. 21 Purdue, which pushed the Huskers to the limit on Friday night, was taken to five sets by 11th-place Iowa on Sunday. The Huskers will face the Hawkeyes in Lincoln to end the regular season on Nov. 25. Ninth-place Ohio State, which hosts Nebraska on Nov. 17, scored an upset at 10th-ranked Wisconsin last weekend.
Even the 10th-place Terrapins put a feather in their cap by pulling out a five-set win over Purdue on Oct. 29 and took a set at Wisconsin last weekend.
“This conference is crazy,” Cook said, “so we’re just staying in the moment right now. That’s all we can do.”
If the goal of winning the Big Ten title isn’t much on the Huskers’ lips, it’s still never far from their minds, senior setter Kelly Hunter said Monday. But this year’s team is finding a new path that may feel even more rewarding if Nebraska ends up with a second straight league title.
When NU clinched last year’s championship, Hunter said, the Huskers were as relieved as they were celebratory. They were the unanimous pick in a preseason poll of league coaches to win the conference. Going back to back in what was considered a rebuilding year — NU was picked to finish second behind Penn State this preseason — would feel like a true reward.
“If we play point by point, then all that stuff is going to happen,” Hunter said. “So I think this year, more than ever, we’re focused on each moment and each play at a time.”
Before a dominant sweep of Indiana on Saturday, Nebraska saw Friday night just how near an unexpected loss can lurk in the Big Ten as it held off Purdue despite never really slowing the Boilermakers’ offense. Purdue hit .328, the highest attack percentage by an NU opponent in four seasons, and the Boilermakers’ Danielle Cuttino and Sherridan Atkinson each put up 20 kills on .450 hitting.
The Huskers sealed the win only after taking the final two sets by the minimum two-point margin, and Cook said surviving the close shave could end up being a positive. In the postseason, Nebraska is likely to run into another team with attackers who, despite NU’s best efforts, will find ways to get kills.
“Sometimes there’s going to be players that we can’t stop, that we have a hard time matching up with, and you’ve just got to weather that storm and find a way to get a touch, a dig, a play, and hang in there,” Cook said. “I think it was a great learning match for us in that they were playing really well, and we just had to keep weathering the storm until we could find a way to turn a couple points and win some close games.”
Maryland has Huskers’ focus
With five Big Ten victories this season, Maryland already has equaled its most conference wins in a season since joining the league in 2014.
Cook said when the Huskers made their first trip to Maryland, his staff agreed it was only a matter of time before Maryland coach Steve Aird, a former Penn State assistant, made the Terrapins’ program competitive. This year’s freshmen ranked as the No. 10 recruiting class according to PrepVolleyball.com, and Aird brought in outside hitter Gia Milana, a top-20 national recruit, in 2016.
“It’s a great place to recruit. It’s a great campus. They’ve got a nice gym. And (Aird is) an East Coast guy,” Cook said. “There’s tons of talent in the metro D.C. area. There always has been, but none of them would go to Maryland because they weren’t any good. There’s a lot of great athletes there, and he’s got a few of them.
“That’s what makes this conference really hard. As they get better, and Indiana’s going to get better, they’re building a new facility, it’s just dog eat dog. We’ve got to keep recruiting. It’s a good challenge.”
Nebraska up to No. 6 in poll
The Huskers moved up one spot to No. 6 in Monday’s coaches poll, giving the Big Ten half the teams in the top 10.
Penn State kept a firm grip on the No. 1 spot, followed by No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Florida and No. 5 Minnesota. No. 8 Michigan State and No. 10 Wisconsin were the other Big Ten teams in the top 10.
Creighton stayed at No. 14 after sweeping home matches against Marquette and DePaul.
But the real ranking to keep an eye on is in the list released by the NCAA volleyball selection committee on Nov. 1. The Huskers were ranked No. 2 behind Penn State, which would seem to give Nebraska an inside track to being one of the four regional hosts for the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA’s top five also included No. 3 Minnesota, No. 4 Stanford and No. 5 Kentucky.
“I think it’s good for volleyball; it gets people talking,” Cook said of the committee’s rankings. “But we’re still three weeks left. We don’t really talk about it. We’re trying to get on this Big Ten thing, do well in the Big Ten.
“If you do well in the Big Ten, you’re going to be rewarded in the NCAA tournament with a seed.”