LINCOLN — At the halfway point of the Big Ten Conference schedule last year, the Nebraska volleyball team was on a roll. The Huskers were leading the conference with a .286 hitting percentage. They had eclipsed the .300 mark in five matches during a 10-0 league start.
But in the second half of the Big Ten schedule, the Huskers' efficiency took a nosedive. NU hit just .230 over its final 10 Big Ten matches and hit less than .200 five times.
The decline could likely be traced to a number of factors. The Huskers admittedly faced physical and mental fatigue in the second half of a league schedule that put them on the road for six of 10 matches, often playing on back-to-back nights. NU played two matches without starting setter Lauren Cook, who was suspended against Michigan and Michigan State after a late-October hit-and-run accident.
Plus, coach John Cook has said the chemistry of this year's team is “absolutely” better than last year, which raises questions about whether the 2011 Huskers had the cohesiveness with which most high-level teams play.
At the midway mark of the conference schedule this year, No. 4 Nebraska once more is hitting lights out, with numbers that even surpass last year's totals. The Huskers are 9-1 in Big Ten play, one game behind No. 1 Penn State, and are again the Big Ten's top hitting team in league play with a .316 average. NU has hit at least .291 in nine of its 10 conference matches and has surpassed the .300 mark in six straight contests.
“I like how we played in the first half,” John Cook said. “Now, the question is can we do it in the second half. Last year, we fell short there, and that's part of our unfinished business.”
There are a number of reasons to believe this year's team is better equipped to maintain its hot start.
Nebraska will play six of its 10 remaining Big Ten matches at home after the first half of the league schedule was front loaded with road matches. The Huskers also will only play on back-to-back nights twice with only one of those instances coming on the road.
“This is kind of the point in the season where everyone is feeling sore and tired,” Lauren Cook said. “It helps that we don't have to go back-to-back every single weekend.”
The Huskers, who don't often go deep into their bench, have been able to save their starters' legs by getting off the floor quickly. Nebraska has played the fewest number of sets of any Big Ten team (67) and has swept five conference opponents.
John Cook also noted his team is more disciplined this year when plays break down. Instead of taking risky, full swings when the offense is out of system, Husker hitters are focusing on keeping their shots inbounds. Even if that extends rallies, it has reduced the likelihood of hitting errors, leading in part to Nebraska's high attack percentage.
“I think that's experience, maturity,” he said. “I think we work really hard to better the ball and put them in a good position so they can do something. We do that every day. Some days it's paying off.”
After struggling with passing at the start of conference play, the Husker ball-handlers appear to have achieved a measure of consistency. Players have been coming to practice early to get extra reps passing and handling serves, and the extra work has paid off. Nebraska has done notably better in most matches lately getting the ball near the net for Lauren Cook to distribute to outside hitters Gina Mancuso and Hannah Werth, opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis and middle blocker Hayley Thramer. All four are multi-year starters.
“I've been lucky enough to have most of the same players most of the years that I've been here,” Lauren Cook said. “Hannah and Gina have always played here, and I came in with Morgan. Just the consistency of knowing each player and what they need and how I can help them be better. I've grown in that area.”
As for the intangibles that were lacking last season, developing team chemistry and trust may have been the highest offseason priority. The team went through leadership classes this spring and John Cook credited the team's five seniors for developing a sense of trust.
“You have to have great team chemistry,” he said. “We've been talking about that all summer and all spring, incorporating the freshmen. That's why they feel comfortable coming in. I've been saying it all along. Our seniors, what they've done to pull this team together, the lessons they learned from last year, they've done a great job with it.”
Nebraska remains No. 4 in coaches poll
After a number of shuffles within the top 10 the last few weeks, there was no upheaval in the AVCA coaches poll released Monday. The top 12 teams remained the same with a top five of No. 1 Penn State, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 Nebraska and No. 5 Washington.
NU will host the top-ranked Nittany Lions Sunday afternoon at the NU Coliseum.
After losing to the Huskers Sunday, Illinois dropped out of the top 25, leaving five Big Ten teams in the poll, the fewest number all season.
Former Huskers to be honored at reception
As part of Nebraska's yearlong celebration of its final season at NU Coliseum, the Huskers will hold a reunion of former players Friday before the team's match with Ohio State.
John Cook said more than 70 former players have registered to attend a reception before the Huskers face the Buckeyes. The alumnae then will be honored in a post-match ceremony where they will be presented with two gifts that Cook said are “appropriate for being a part of Nebraska volleyball and playing in the Coliseum.”
Volleyball has called the Coliseum home since the program's inception in 1975, but the Huskers will move next season to the Devaney Center, which is in the middle of a $20 million renovation to tailor the arena more specifically to volleyball.
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