LINCOLN — The Nebraska volleyball team started Big Ten Conference play away from home for two of its first three weekends, but it's been nearly a month since the Huskers have gone on a multi-match trip.
No. 11 Nebraska isn't exactly easing back into life on the road this weekend, facing a pair of ranked foes. Not that the Huskers are complaining. NU's matches Friday at No. 16 Wisconsin and Sunday at No. 9 Minnesota have the feel of a weekend in the NCAA tournament, said junior setter Mary Pollmiller, giving the Huskers a chance to get prepared for the postseason, which begins in one month.
“I think it's an amazing opportunity because it's not only great for us in the Big Ten, but for when we host in the NCAA, hopefully, through regionals, then we have to go somewhere to a big environment to compete,” Pollmiller said. “That's how it's going to be this weekend two days in a row.”
The Wisconsin-Minnesota trip has proven to be the toughest weekend road swing in the Big Ten this year. No team has won at both venues in the same weekend. The Gophers, whom NU will play on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network, have not lost on their home floor in the Sports Pavilion all year.
Nebraska (17-4, 10-2 Big Ten) defeated both opponents at the Devaney Center on the same weekend in October. The Huskers played one of their best matches of the year to sweep Minnesota and prevailed in a five-set match with the Badgers the next night.
The Huskers found out what can happen if you don't close out Wisconsin (18-6, 7-5) when you have the chance. Nebraska won the first two sets in Lincoln on Oct. 5, only to see the Badgers rally to win the next two sets and force a fifth, which NU won 15-6.
“I know us, as players, know how difficult it was playing them here, so obviously playing at their place will be even tougher,” said Amber Rolfzen, Nebraska's freshman opposite hitter. “What I remember is very scrappy, that's probably the main thing. You think a ball is down, and it's not down. You've just got to keep playing every point and never give up.”
Against Wisconsin the last time out, Nebraska had to endure the Badgers' tenacious floor defense, which held the Huskers to a .236 attack percentage, NU's lowest mark to date in Big Ten play.
The Huskers got the win thanks to 17.5 team blocks and a monster night from Kelsey Robinson, who had a career-high 29 kills and 22 digs.
Nebraska expects more of the same Wisconsin intensity during the rematch Friday at 7 p.m. in the historic UW Fieldhouse.
Wisconsin leads the Big Ten with 15.44 digs per set, and though the Badgers' offensive efficiency isn't eyebrow raising, freshman setter Lauren Carlini is living up to expectations that come with being the nation's top-ranked recruit.
Carlini is setting a balanced offense that features three attackers — Ellen Chapman, Deme Morales and Courtney Thomas — all averaging about 2.85 kills per set in conference play.
“She's played a lot of years and she's stepped into her role as a freshman and has done a great job,” Nebraska coach John Cook said of Carlini. “That team would not be anywhere close to where they are without her. She's made that team better, and it will be fun to play against her.”
Wisconsin could use a win over a top-15 team to jump start the final month of the regular season and improve its seeding potential in the NCAA tournament, which at the moment appears a safe bet for the Badgers. Nebraska's visit is the first of four straight home matches for UW, but that stretch includes a visit from No. 2 Penn State next weekend. The Badgers close the regular season with four straight road matches.
For Nebraska, one or two road wins over ranked opponents would be a helpful boost to the RPI, where Nebraska is 10th, and increase the chances of NU hosting first- and second-round NCAA matches at the Devaney Center.
“We know it's a big weekend,” Rolfzen said. “It's going to be a big deal if we come out of there 2-0, but it wouldn't be surprising to people if we go 1-1. We'll just give everything we got, and hopefully come out 2-0.”
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Video: Nebraska coach John Cook's press conference