LINCOLN — Lauren Cook delivered a pregame message that nearly put her father, Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook, in tears. Then, Hannah Werth delivered a statement during the match that put a smile on his face.
The upperclassmen for No. 10 Nebraska weathered the emotions of Senior Night and ended the regular season on a high note, leading the Huskers to a 25-15, 25-22, 20-25, 25-21 win over Northwestern Saturday night in front of 4,092 fans at the NU Coliseum.
Werth continued her recent hot streak with a team-high 17 kills and also led Nebraska (23-6, 15-5 Big Ten) with 13 digs as the Huskers will go into the NCAA tournament having won three straight matches and end the year tied with Minnesota for second place in the Big Ten.
To get a win in the last-ever regular-season match at the Coliseum, Nebraska had to grind its way through a less-than-virtuoso performance against a Northwestern club that upset the Huskers last year in Evanston. The Wildcats fought off five game points in Game 2 before Nebraska closed out the set, then held the Huskers to .161 hitting in Game 3.
“This is a very, very difficult night,” John Cook said. “There's a lot of distractions with Senior Night. The last home game at the Coliseum. We're playing a team that beat us last year and has no fear, nothing to lose. I just thought we got a little tight and were a little out of sorts tonight.”
Nebraska again faced a gut-check moment late in Game 4. After the Wildcats had scored three straight points to cut the Huskers' lead to 21-19, Katie Dutchman committed one of Northwestern's nine service errors.
Nebraska middle blocker Hayley Thramer followed with a solo block on the next rally, and then senior Gina Mancuso punctuated the Huskers' 3-0 response with one of her 13 kills to give the Huskers match point. Werth sealed the match three rallies later with her final kill to allow the post-match festivities to begin. The outside hitter from Springfield, Ill., averaged 4.5 kills per set over Nebraska's last three matches.
Stephanie Holthus, who ranked third in the Big Ten in kills coming into the match, led Northwestern (16-15, 5-15) with a match-best 18 kills, but Nebraska held the Wildcats to a .209 attacking mark thanks in part to 14 blocks.
Meghan Haggerty, Nebraska's freshman middle blocker, led all players with seven stuffs while Thramer chipped in six blocks and seven kills.
“I feel like we're getting in that rhythm and that groove as a team,” Werth said. “Everyone really understands their roles, and that's really important. It's a lot easier to play comfortable, but also attack at the same time.”
Nearly the entire crowd stuck around to cheer on the team's five seniors. Lauren Cook was introduced first, receiving the traditional Senior Night rose from Nebraska assistant coach Dan Meske while her father relinquished the head coaching duties momentarily to walk with Lauren and his wife, Wendy, on to the floor.
“The one moment for me was standing down there on the court with Wendy and Lauren and looking up and seeing 4,000 people just soaking in the moment, cheering,” John Cook said. “I'm thinking, 'This is my daughter.' That was kind of a 'wow' moment for me.”
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Prior to the match, Lauren had given her father her miniature volleyball normally thrown into the crowd during player introductions. On it, she had written a personal message she declined to share with reporters following the match. Whatever it said, it caught the coach off-guard. He put his head down for a few moments after reading the ball, clearly struck with emotion.
“We've tried really hard to make it a coach-player experience while I've been here,” Lauren said. “But he is my dad. I just wanted to do something special for him. So that was what I chose to do.
“He is the one who allowed me to be here, and without that, I wouldn't be here and living my dream to be here. He's the one that's made all this happen for me.”
Lauren Cook joined Werth with a double-double in the match, adding 10 digs to her 45 set assists. She also had two of the Huskers' seven aces, which tied a season-high for the team.
John Cook said the Huskers ended the regular season in much better shape than a year ago, when he said the team wore down in pursuit of the conference title. The Huskers exited the postseason with a second-round NCAA tournament loss on their home floor to Kansas State.
A Final Four appearance is still a piece missing from the legacy of this year's seniors. But with the team likely to host NCAA first- and second-round matches at the Coliseum, and likely to be placed in the Omaha regional when the bracket is released Sunday afternoon, Nebraska likely won't have to leave the state to qualify for the Final Four in Louisville.
“I feel completely different (than last year),” John Cook said. “It's a whole new season starting Monday. So I think there will be some excitement and more fun to it than just beating a team we're supposed to beat tonight.”
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