LINCOLN — As it enters the final week of the regular season, everything is in front of the Nebraska volleyball team.
The 11th-ranked Huskers are tied with No. 3 Wisconsin at 15-3 atop the Big Ten standings. They are ahead of third-place Purdue by one game. Nebraska plays both those teams this week, starting with the Badgers on Friday.
Coach John Cook said this is why he is at Nebraska – to play for championships.
“This is what every coach and team dreams for,” he said Monday at his weekly press conference. “We got a shot to win a Big Ten championship this week, and we got to give it everything we got.”
Whoever wins on Friday night will earn at least a share of the title. The Huskers (20-6 overall) will face a tough challenge this week as they’ve lost the last six meetings with Wisconsin.
The tight finish was set up by the Badgers earning a three-hour, five-set victory over Minnesota (13-5) on Sunday. The match featured three sets that went into extra points as well as a battle between the league’s past two players of the year. Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke finished with 21 kills at a .372 clip, while Gopher opposite Stephanie Samedy tallied 31 kills and 20 digs.
This season has been more competitive than recent history. It will be the first time since 2011 when the Big Ten champion will have at least three losses. Nebraska won the league that year at 17-3, with three teams a game back.
Cook attributed the even nature of the league to the increased talent from the fifth-year seniors plus the impact of the transfer portal.
Cook used the words of former Indiana men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight, who originally said it was tougher to win the Big Ten conference than a national championship.
“You’ve got to grind for 10 weeks in the toughest conference,” Cook said. “The NCAA tournament is six matches over three weeks. You got to get it hot for six matches. Big Ten you're on the road, home and away, grinding. So it's harder to win than a national championship, in my opinion.”
One of the top volleyball and basketball recruits officially joined the Huskers as Maggie Mendelson signed her national letter of intent on Monday.
The 6-foot-5 post/middle blocker recruit surprised Cook and women’s basketball coach Amy Williams with a trip to Lincoln to verbally commit to both in-person on Saturday.
It capped off a whirlwind recruiting journey that began on June 15, the first day coaches could recruit in person. Cook showed that she was a priority by flying to Utah to watch Mendelson play a game that morning. Mendelson reclassified to a 2022 prospect in October and then took a handful of official visits before committing
From North Ogden, Utah, she was was ranked as the No. 2 2023 volleyball prospect by PrepVolleyball.com and the No. 32 overall for 2022 and sixth-best post prospect by ESPN.
Williams said she enjoyed working with the volleyball staff to coordinate in-person contact and evaluation days in addition to developing a plan that would allow Mendelson to play both sports at Nebraska.
“It’s been a real collaborative effort from both staffs — both my assistants and John's assistants,” Williams said. “She’s just an incredible young lady and family. We're so excited she’s going to be a Husker.”
Even though Mendelson will play both sports at Nebraska, because of NCAA rules, her scholarship will only count toward basketball’s limit.
Cook said she might be able to redshirt for one team to give her a season to focus on a single sport, but he didn’t bring her to Nebraska to sit on the bench.
“We wanted her because she has a chance to start,” Cook said.
One reason Nebraska will be in a better position this year to make a run in the NCAA tournament is its increased depth. The Huskers have eight players who have started at least 10 matches this season, including four outside hitters and three middle blockers. NU also has an experienced back row and several serving specialists.
Not included in the number of double-digit starters is freshman Whitney Lauenstein, who looked like the best player on the court at times against No. 15 Penn State on Friday night.
The Waverly graduate entered the match late in the second set and finished with five kills on eight swings. Cook said Lauenstein played great in practices lately and has been playing fearless as her confidence has grown.
“She has been phenomenal,” Cook said. “She's gone to another level in the last couple of weeks. So I've been looking for an opportunity to get her in. I see her confidence just growing.”