LINCOLN — The second time through the Big Ten volleyball schedule yields a new set of challenges, which the Nebraska volleyball team discovered last weekend when it began the back-half of league play with a loss to Ohio State.
The Huskers defeated the Buckeyes in the teams’ first meeting in Columbus on Sept. 22, but Ohio State switched its game plan to serve Nebraska short and send a double-block at outside hitters Gina Mancuso and Hannah Werth. The result: Nebraska’s offense looked out of sync much of the night, and the Buckeyes racked up 13 blocks in a four-set upset.
“Every team’s got a look at each other. They have twice as much film,” senior defensive specialist Paige Hubl said. “They can scout us a lot better because they’ve played us, so we’ve got to start taking each game more personal. Teams we beat in the first round are taking it personal. We have to find that emotional aspect for the last half of Big Ten.”
No. 4 Nebraska (18-3, 10-2 Big Ten) resumes the second half of Big Ten play this weekend with a pair of road matches against two more teams in the middle of the conference standings that the Huskers defeated earlier in the year. The Huskers travel to Michigan (17-9, 5-7) Friday for a 6 p.m. match before heading to East Lansing to face Michigan State (17-7, 5-7) Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Huskers will have plenty of good film to review in hopes of duplicating their success from the two previous wins. Nebraska dropped just one set combined in beating the Wolverines and Spartans in the NU Coliseum while largely silencing two of the Big Ten’s most dangerous attackers.
Michigan State outside hitter Lauren Wicinski, who leads the conference with 4.45 kills per set, led the Spartans with 13 kills against the Huskers on Sept. 26, but didn’t play with the dominant form she’s been showing lately. The two-time All-American, who transferred from Northern Illinois, has notched at least 16 kills in each of the Spartans’ last six matches, including surpassing 20 kills three times.
The Huskers followed that win with a four-set victory over Michigan four days later in which the Huskers completely bottled up the Wolverines’ top attacker, outside hitter Lexi Erwin. Erwin, who has posted five 20-kill matches this season, was held to a season-low two kills against five errors in 22 swings against Nebraska, eventually being removed from the match.
Erwin has since notched at least 12 kills in seven of Michigan’s eight matches since losing in Lincoln.
Nebraska coach John Cook said his team can take much away from reviewing film of those victories. But then again, so can opponents.
“When we play them, we always debrief afterwards — what they did to us,” Cook said. “That’s filed away so when we play them again, we can say ‘Look, here’s what they did to us, and this is how we attack.’ But, everybody is scouting everybody now, so everybody is getting good game plans. Those teams will be able to see what Ohio State did and Penn State did. We have to counteract it.”
This weekend marks the final time this season Nebraska will play on the road on back-to-back nights, which Cook said could save his players some fatigue. Last season, the Huskers played road matches on consecutive nights twice in the second half of league play, and lost matches on the second night both times with defeats to Penn State and Purdue.
Nebraska should be aided by receiving an extra day of rest mid-week following an exhausting and emotional win over No. 1 Penn State Sunday. The Huskers traveled to Ann Arbor Thursday and didn’t practice in addition to receiving the team’s customary day off on Monday.
“It’s the time of year when it’s hard to be great every day,” Cook said. “They’re just managing right now.”
Part of that is embracing Cook’s next-point mentality. The Huskers had 24 hours to bask in the five-set win over the Nittany Lions, but on Tuesday it was back in the gym to shore up a few areas of concern. Nebraska had hit better than .300 in six straight matches to end the first trip through the Big Ten schedule, but hit a combined .195 in the two matches last weekend.
It was an early reminder that the second time around conference play can bring a whole new set of challenges.
“Each day we’re trying to get better and better because this is the time of year where teams either peak or they are going downhill,” Hubl said. “That’s just a goal for November, that each practice we’re doing something better or getting better at a certain task.”
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