LINCOLN — The first half of Big Ten play took the Nebraska volleyball team to the heights of a dramatic home victory over rival Penn State and the lows of several uncompetitive losses.
At the midway point of the conference schedule, the Huskers, who remained No. 14 in this week’s coaches poll, have a clear choice to make, coach John Cook said.
“Are we going to come in and see if we are going to be better second half than we were first half?” Cook said Monday. “Traditionally, Nebraska teams have done that. I don’t see any reason this team can’t do that.”
Will Nebraska (12-7, 6-4 Big Ten) regain the confidence and poise of the club that outperformed the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions on Oct. 3 or will the team’s offensive struggles persist in the season’s final month?
For the last four weeks, the Huskers have alternated wins and losses. The outcomes have mirrored inconsistencies on the court, and Cook said plenty of factors have played into the momentum swings.
The coach is tired of using the team’s youth to explain away its faults, but it’s not a coincidence everyone in the back row is in either her first or second year in the program. Cook said Wisconsin showed Nebraska what a great ball-handling team can do. The Badgers’ passes were on target and they transitioned Husker attacks in system, while Nebraska’s first touch was lacking.
“We have to value our first contact better,” Cook said. “That will make our setter better and that will make our offensive rhythm better.”
Finding that attacking efficiency has been a challenge. The Huskers rank 11th in the Big Ten at 13.1 kills per set. Starting pin hitters Amber Rolfzen, Kadie Rolfzen and Alicia Ostrander have combined to hit .219 in conference play, and the Huskers’ .231 attack percentage in Big Ten matches ranks sixth.
First touch is only one issue. Setter Mary Pollmiller, the team’s lone senior, has not been consistent in her tempo and location even when passes are on target. Then hitters have to make smart shots. Nebraska went away from its game plan against Wisconsin and sent attacks either out of bounds or right to Badgers libero Taylor Morey, who had 29 digs.
“That’s the disappointing thing to me is we didn’t trust our game plan and our training,” Cook said. “That’s us letting the moment and situation take us out of what we trained to do.”
The second half of the Big Ten schedule does give Nebraska some respite, starting with a road trip this week to Maryland and Rutgers, two of the bottom three teams in the league. The Huskers play five of their remaining 10 matches against teams currently in the Big Ten’s bottom five.
That may allow the Huskers to build confidence, momentum and leadership down the stretch. Last season, Nebraska relied on All-American outside hitter Kelsey Robinson for her talent and leadership, which NU has struggled to replace.
The best teams in the Big Ten not only have elite players, but also leaders who propel their clubs to greatness. Cook mentioned Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini and Penn State’s Micha Hancock as players who refuse to let their teams lose.
Do the Huskers have one of those difference makers on a team with 11 underclassmen? That may be the biggest question NU faces in the second half of the season.
“We have to get that swagger and that confidence,” Cook said.
“Leadership starts with me, goes to Mary and our captains, and through the rest of our team. It’s a whole package.”
Texas loss jumbles Top 10
A stunning home loss by No. 2 Texas last weekend shook up the AVCA Top 10 released Monday. The Longhorns were swept by unranked Oklahoma 26-24, 26-24, 26-24 in Austin on Saturday to snap a 34-match home winning streak.
Texas fell to No. 5, with Stanford, Washington, Florida State and Wisconsin making up the top four. Penn State, Colorado State, Florida, North Carolina and Illinois round out the top 10.
Nebraska only faces one team ranked in the poll, No. 13 Purdue, between now and Nov. 26.
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