As long as the Nebraska volleyball team is mathematically alive for the Big Ten championship, you expect it to be among the team's stated goals, but there's a decent chance the conference title will be sewn up by Penn State when the Nittany Lions visit Lincoln to close the regular season Saturday.
But it's a big week for the Huskers regardless of whether a trophy hangs in the balance, NU coach John Cook said Monday. The Huskers are looking to enter the NCAA tournament in two weeks on an upswing after their eight-match winning streak was snapped in a sweep at Purdue last Friday. Nebraska bounced back to sweep last-place Indiana on Saturday.
“This week is about just finding ways to win,” Cook said. “I hope our team will be fired up to play in the NCAA tournament and the postseason. We put ourselves in a pretty good position, but we've got to finish this week. We've got to learn from what went wrong Friday night (against Purdue) and get better from that, so there's a great teaching week here as well.”
Nebraska (22-5, 15-3 Big Ten), which dropped to No. 10 in Monday's AVCA coaches poll, must win at Iowa on Wednesday to keep alive its slim hopes of winning a share of the conference title. No. 2 Penn State can claim the title outright with a win Wednesday at Ohio State.
Still, Cook said this week's two matches have important implications for the postseason. A win at Iowa would give the Huskers — who were picked fourth in the league's preseason poll — sole claim to second place in the Big Ten.
That likely would make NU a sure bet to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament matches at the Devaney Center, which already has been selected to host an NCAA regional this year.
The Hawkeyes won their second Big Ten match of the year over the weekend, a five-setter at Indiana, before falling 3-1 at Purdue.
“Iowa is really big for us and Iowa is playing well. They're a young team, so they're going to be fired up. ... They took a game off Purdue, and we got waxed by Purdue. They've got our full attention right now.”
Cook also is eager to see how the team bounces back mentally after falling flat at Purdue, where NU hit a season-low .136. The coach said his young team learned a hard lesson in West Lafayette, Ind., about what can happen when you don't match an opponent's intensity.
“Purdue is playing to get in the tournament,” Cook said. “They feel like they had to win to even get in the NCAA tournament. ... Imagine the motivation those kids have. They've got (four) fifth-year seniors. So imagine their motivation, and we come in there thinking 'Hey, we're on an eight-game win streak, and yeah, we're pretty good. We'll beat these guys.'
“You've got to bring it every night, and it's a hard thing to do.”
Keil getting coach's attention
Nebraska's continued search for consistent offensive production out of its middle blockers led to freshman Melanie Keil getting her first career start Saturday in the win at Indiana.
The Berlin, Germany, native started alongside sophomore Meghan Haggerty in the middle, totaling five kills and one error in nine attempts while adding six blocks.
“She got after it. She competes really hard,” Cook said. “Melanie's got another gear when we get in games that she can go to. I think that's a lot of her experience playing in Germany. She certainly, I think, made a strong case to continue to be on the court, so it'll be interesting to see how those middles do this week in practice.”
Nebraska remains in top 10
The Huskers slipped four spots to No. 10 in this week's AVCA coaches poll following the loss at Purdue, and moved down two spots to No. 8 in the NCAA's RPI rankings.
The same five teams remain at the top of the AVCA poll, though Washington and Stanford switched places after the Cardinal swept the Huskies last week. Texas is No. 1, followed by Penn State, Stanford, Missouri and Washington.
Eight Big Ten teams are ranked in this week's poll.
* * *
Video: Nebraska coach John Cook