LINCOLN — If there is anything the Nebraska volleyball program is cognizant of, it is history.
And last week coach John Cook said his biggest priority was to find a way to make sure his team doesn’t endure the same second-half malaise that made the last two months of the 2011 campaign a slog.
“We’ve got to find that energy and passion to finish out here,” Cook said. “I think that’s what’s important. We don’t want to let ourselves go where we went last year. That’s the ultimatum: We’ve got to play well and feel like we’re getting better.”
Yet, with three matches left in the regular season, the second half of this year’s campaign bears some startling similarities to a year ago. The Huskers’ play dipped noticeably during the last month of the season, which ended in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Kansas State.
Like last season, Nebraska has had trouble getting off to a fast start. The Huskers lost the first set in seven of their final 11 matches in 2011, and the team is enduring the same problem this year. In Nebraska’s last seven matches, the Huskers have dropped the opening game five times.
Three of those games have been blowouts, with NU failing to score more than 13 points. Nebraska has managed just a .178 attack percentage in the opening set since the second half of Big Ten play started.
Those early struggles have produced deficits that often have proved too much to overcome, as No. 9 Nebraska (20-6, 12-5 Big Ten) is 3-4 in the second half of conference play heading into Sunday’s 1 p.m. match at unranked Wisconsin (17-13, 5-12).
The Huskers aren’t necessarily finishing matches strongly either, especially on the road. Nebraska has lost five-game heartbreakers in each of its last three matches away from home despite having golden opportunities to win all three.
The swoon began when the Huskers let a pair of road wins slip away two weeks ago at Michigan and Michigan State. Nebraska won the first two games at Michigan before the Wolverines stormed back to hit .360 over the final three sets.
The following night in East Lansing, the Huskers hit .188 without senior outside hitter Hannah Werth, who injured her ankle the night before. Still, Nebraska had four match points in the fifth set, but the Spartans survived them all before winning 17-15.
Friday night at Minnesota may have been the most frustrating defeat yet. The Huskers held big leads in Games 4 and 5, but couldn’t close the deal against the Gophers despite holding a pair of match points in the fifth. Minnesota rallied from a 7-2 deficit in Game 5 and eventually won 21-19, officially eliminating Nebraska from Big Ten title contention.
Facing similar struggles to a year ago may indicate fatigue is taking its toll on the Huskers, a fact Cook has hinted at in recent comments about altering the program’s recruiting strategies to include more talented back row specialists. Nebraska traditionally develops its attackers into all-around players, leaving them on the floor for five or six rotations.
But with a recent NCAA rule allowing teams increased substitutions, Cook said the program is targeting more defensive specialists who can substitute when his attackers rotate to the back row, giving the offensive weapons a breather while improving NU’s floor defense.
“We’ve got to continue to recruit more depth,” Cook said. “Do what Purdue does, what Penn State does. They’ve got a lot of back row kids that relieve front row kids. We don’t have that depth yet where we feel like we have kids we can put in there and not drop off.”
So that could mean the end in the near future of seeing six-rotation outside hitters like seniors Gina Mancuso and Werth, whose recent play has been a bright spot as they fight to end their Nebraska careers on a high note. The two have combined for 72 kills and a .337 attack percentage in the last two matches.
But the Huskers lack an elite-level attacker who can get kills regularly against a double block. The offense excels more with balance and unpredictability. Which means the Huskers need at least one more capable offensive option to join their senior duo if they want to make a run in the NCAA tournament, and there would be no better time to start than Sunday against a Badger team that is looking to bolster its own NCAA tournament résumé with a win over the Huskers.
Two hopeful candidates, junior opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis and junior middle blocker Hayley Thramer, each shined against Wisconsin in the teams’ first meeting, a 3-0 Nebraska win in Lincoln on Oct. 12. Broekhuis and Thramer combined for 23 kills and a .426 attack percentage in that match, but have been hot and cold recently as the Huskers search for a dependable third weapon.
Nebraska is safely in the NCAA tournament, but if the Huskers continue to fall in the polls and the NCAA’s RPI ratings, there is a small possibility they could start the postseason away from the Coliseum in the building’s final year as the home of Nebraska volleyball.
That’s the kind of history no one in the program is eager to make.
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