Huskers know there are ‘no gimmes’ after week filled with upsets
LINCOLN — At the start of the Nebraska volleyball season, coach John Cook told fans they would see some “wild” volleyball matches, a prediction he made both as a caution and an enticement. On a team that has started four freshmen at times this season, you’re going to have to take the good with the bad.
“It’s going to be great volleyball, it’s going to be sloppy volleyball,” Cook said Monday. “Last year our team was really consistent. When you’ve got that much youth and inexperience, you’re going to see … we served five balls in the net yesterday.”
Nebraska (6-1) survived a pair of challenges last week, beating Creighton and Iowa State to run its winning streak to six matches on a weekend where upsets roiled many of the top teams in the country. Six of the top 10 teams in last week’s coaches poll lost, leading to significant shuffling in Monday’s poll.
NU moved up three spots to No. 4 this week, and was joined in the top 10 by Creighton, which grabbed the final spot at No. 10. Last week’s No. 1 team, Minnesota, lost two matches at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, opening the door for BYU to become the nation’s new No. 1 team.
While the Gophers fell victim to two quality opponents on the road, including preseason No. 1 Stanford, true upsets felled other final four hopefuls. Wisconsin, last week’s No. 2 team, lost at No. 15 Baylor, which lost the next day to Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Florida fell out of the top 10 after losing at Northern Arizona in the Lumberjack Invitational. Then-No. 9 UCLA lost on back-to-back nights at No. 22 Cal Poly. No. 10 USC lost twice on Friday to BYU and No. 25 Marquette.
“It’s almost like a penalty to be in the top 10. You better show up,” Cook said. “That’s what I’ve been telling these guys from Day One and trying to instill in our freshmen. You have got to show up every match. There are no gimmes, especially in the Big Ten.”
Cook identified a couple of potential causes of the upset outbreak. Several occurred in tournaments where the upset victims were playing multiple matches in a day. Florida lost to Northern Arizona Friday night after beating Cal State-Northridge earlier in the day in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. USC lost to BYU in a match that started at 10:00 a.m. in Milwaukee, or 8 a.m. Pacific time.
Nebraska tries to avoid scheduling multiple matches in a day, but Cook said sometimes guaranteeing a team three opponents on a weekend is the only way he can entice teams to come to Lincoln. This week, NU hosts the Husker Invite with two matches on Friday, facing Central Michigan at noon and New Mexico at 7:30 p.m., before a Saturday match against Missouri State.
Cook said a rule may be in the proposal stage that would prohibit playing more than one match in a day. Some coaches are already choosing rest over more games. Texas, Cook pointed out, avoided scheduling tournaments that required multi-match days this season and will play only eight nonconference matches before starting its Big 12 schedule.
“It’s hard to play good for three matches,” Cook said. “You’ve got to be good and have a great mindset.”
Another factor Cook sees is the increase in the skill of the median college player. Not the elite prospects, he said, mentioning Team USA-level talents like Jordan Larson, Nicole Fawcett or Foluke Akinradewo. But the pool of players one level below elite has grown, bringing more parity to the sport.
“Maybe there was only 20 of those kids (in the past),” Cook said. “Now, there might be 60, 70 of those kids every year coming out that are really good players.”
And similar to how AAU basketball has made the country’s top hoops prospects familiar with each other before arriving in college, the lengthy club volleyball season acclimates college prospects to competing against top recruits like NU freshman setter Nicklin Hames, who came to Lincoln as the country’s top-rated setter in her class.
“They’re used to playing against each other so there’s no intimidation factor anymore,” Cook said. “Nicklin’s played against all those kids. They’ve all played against Nicklin in these clubs. So there’s no ‘Oh God, it’s Nebraska’ or, ‘it’s Texas.’ Those kids have all played each other a bunch of times. They’re not afraid.”
Foecke honored by Big Ten
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke was recognized by the Big Ten on Monday as the league’s co-player of the week after setting a new career high with 25 kills Thursday against Creighton.
For the week, Foecke averaged 4.25 kills and 2.5 digs in NU’s two matches. She shared the honor with Illinois sophomore Megan Cooney.
It’s Foecke’s second conference player of the week honor. She was given the nod on October 30, 2017, after hitting .387 in leading the Huskers to road wins at Michigan State and Michigan.
Sun progresses in practice
Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun still has not played in a match for Nebraska after transferring from Texas, but she’s making progress, Cook said Monday.
The NU staff has been increasing the type of practice activities in which Sun has participated. Cook said Sun went through Nebraska’s intense, full-speed hitting drill where pin hitters have to deal with a triple block and multiple floor defenders, known as the “trash can drill,” on Saturday. She’s also been participating in pregame warm-ups for the last two weekends.
Cook said there is no deadline at which Nebraska would decide to shut down Sun for the season, however the decision may be forced within the next couple of weeks.
If Sun doesn’t play at all this season, she could use a redshirt year and still have three seasons of eligibility starting next year.
She also could play in a few matches this year, and if she’s not physically 100 percent, NU could still try to preserve a season of her eligibility by applying for a medical hardship as long as Sun doesn’t play in more than 30 percent of NU’s matches and doesn’t play in any match past the half-way mark of the season, which would begin on Oct. 6 against Minnesota.
Cook said he isn’t looking ahead that far yet.
”She wants to play, so we’re trying to get her ready to play,” he said. “We’ll see what happens and we’ll go from there.”