LINCOLN — If the Nebraska volleyball team goes on to meaningful success in the postseason, maybe even making a run to the program’s first final four since 2008, the Huskers may look back to Saturday as the night they got their mojo back.
Coach John Cook said No. 9 Nebraska’s five-set win over Purdue was one of the best matches he has coached, and it capped a 2-0 weekend that broke the Huskers out of a funk in which they lost three of four matches.
“The level of play from both teams over five games was tremendous,” Cook said Monday. “It’s kind of re-energized our team a little bit. It was good to get a win and play well.”
Cook said the Purdue coaches shared his sentiment in a postgame email, as did Ariel Turner, the Boilermakers’ All-American outside hitter. The Husker coach exchanged a few words with Turner, who had a match-high 25 kills in the losing effort, while the two waited for a television interview following the match.
“She just said, ‘This was so much fun,’” Cook said. “Those kids knew they played well, and our kids knew they played well.”
It’s no coincidence the Huskers pulled out the victory — rallying from a 2-1 deficit in sets — on a night senior outside hitter Hannah Werth played one of her finest matches. Werth was playing her second match in as many nights after sitting out last weekend’s loss at Michigan State with an ankle injury. She had 18 kills with just one error against Purdue, while adding 13 digs and four blocks.
But what the box score doesn’t show, Cook said, was Werth providing the fiery leadership the Huskers may have been searching for. The coach pointed to a moment Saturday when freshman Meghan Haggerty didn’t react quickly enough to reach a Purdue attack. The Boilermakers got a point, and the freshman got an earful from Werth.
“Hannah was right in her face,” Cook said. “I was just like, ‘I love this,’ because that’s what you want. That fire and passion. The sense of urgency. You don’t see that often from girls. That’s just a fact, not a statement.
“It takes someone with a lot of confidence and feels good about themselves and has that respect level that can do that. Otherwise, it comes across in a negative way.”
The coach said energy and passion like Werth showed Saturday will be necessary for postseason success, but Nebraska must walk a fine line to balance fire and fatigue. Both Werth and outside hitter Gina Mancuso play all six rotations, giving them little rest in matches.
Lately, Cook has begun substituting more liberally, bringing in back-row specialists Paige Hubl and Sheridan Zarda, while spelling Werth and opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis with freshmen Kelsey Fien and Alexa Strange.
“It’s just like managing a baseball pitcher right now. It’s a pitch count,” Cook said. “I’m really, really sensitive to that with Gina, Hannah, Morgan. Those guys take a lot of swings. Making sure (setter) Lauren (Cook) goes in rested. That’s probably the most important thing right now, they go into every match feeling rested mentally and physically.”
Last year, fatigue may have contributed to the Huskers’ late-season swoon that ended with a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Kansas State. Managing the team’s rest will be Cook’s biggest challenge through the end of this season, but it may have only recently moved up to priority No. 1.
A respected senior captain embracing the responsibility to fire up the troops has the coach breathing a sigh of relief.
“(Werth) brings such an energy and intensity to our team, which I think is really, really important. We need it,” Cook said.
“We’ve got to find that energy and passion to finish out here, that’s what’s important. We don’t want to let ourselves go where we went last year. That’s the ultimatum, to play well and feel like we keep getting better. We’re playing well, and we’ve got to carry that over into the tournament.”
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