LINCOLN — With four new starters, there are times when it’s clear Nebraska is still learning lessons about what it takes to compete in the nation’s toughest volleyball conference.
In recent losses against Minnesota and Penn State, both top-10 foes, the Huskers’ shortcomings have been exposed, revealing a talented team that is still searching for the passing, setting and attacking consistency to join the nation’s elite.
These lessons aren’t coming free this season. The defending NCAA champions are in the middle of a stretch where five of their seven matches are against opponents ranked in the top 10. They are teams that will impose a price for every miscue.
“I think we’re just learning we can’t afford to make so many errors and lack ball control, especially when we’re playing in the Big Ten because we’re playing a top-10 team almost every game,” Husker libero Kenzie Maloney said. “We have to expect more of ourselves, and that’s what we’re learning right now.”
A four-match road trip for No. 5 Nebraska (15-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) continues with NU’s most arduous weekend of the regular season. It would be hard to find a tougher midterm for the Huskers than matches at No. 9 Wisconsin at 8 p.m. Friday and at No. 3 Minnesota at 7 p.m. Saturday. A pair of contests, both to be televised on Big Ten Network, that will show how much Nebraska has learned at the midway point of the conference schedule.
NU’s recent struggles have revealed some positives to coach John Cook even if the matches haven’t all resulted in wins. Cook said in last Saturday’s five-set loss at No. 4 Penn State, he admired how his team went swing for swing with the Nittany Lions in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 opposing fans.
Leading 23-22 in the fourth set, Nebraska was two points from victory before a late run of miscues helped Penn State come back to beat the Huskers in five sets, ending a run of seven straight NU wins in the series.
“I thought we competed hard. We just made too many errors,” Cook said. “It was a good match. We handled the environment really well. But we didn’t get it done. That’s the bottom line.”
It’s important for the team to recognize value in the losses, said Maloney, one of NU’s two senior captains. Losses should sting, but also instruct a young team learning the sustained intensity needed to compete nightly in a league that has seven teams ranked in this week’s Top 25.
“I think as long as we’re improving, that’s good,” she said. “Obviously we want a win to come out of that eventually, but I think if we do make those improvements, that’s when we’re going to start seeing our team get better.”
Like last weekend’s trip to Penn State, Nebraska is set for two more matches in some of college volleyball’s best home-court environments. Wisconsin (12-4, 5-3) ranks second to Nebraska nationally in attendance, drawing 7,000 fans per match this year to the UW Fieldhouse. Last year, the Badgers’ 3-1 win in Madison was the Huskers’ final loss of the year.
The duo of middle blocker Dana Rettke and setter Sydney Hilley, who punished the Huskers as freshmen last season, are enjoying fine sophomore campaigns. The 6-foot-8 Rettke, last year’s national freshman of the year, leads Big Ten middles in kills (3.63 per set) and ranks second in the league in hitting percentage (.405) and blocks per set (1.56).
“We’ve got to get all six players on her,” Cook said of Rettke. “Blockers and diggers.”
Minnesota, which is 14-2 overall and 8-0 in conference play going into Friday’s match against Iowa, hasn’t missed a beat since beating the Huskers in four sets in Lincoln on Oct. 6. The Gophers are hitting a league-best .303 on the season, which included a .280 mark in the first match against NU, the highest efficiency the Huskers have allowed this year. Saturday’s match is a sellout at Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion, which seats better than 5,400 fans.
The undefeated opening run marks the Gophers’ best Big Ten start ever, leaving Minnesota a game and a half in front of Penn State for the conference lead. Sweeping the season series with Nebraska on Saturday would put the Gophers firmly in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten title race despite having to play at Wisconsin and Penn State in the second half of the season.
It would end Nebraska’s two-year run as Big Ten champ, but that’s a picture too big for the team to focus on right now, Maloney said. The Huskers still need to dial in the details to pull out at least one road win this weekend that would keep them in the conversation.
“That’s just kind of where our mentality is. One play at a time, one game at a time,” Maloney said. “You don’t really want to focus on the end of conference play. You just want to focus on who you have coming up next.”
Nebraska at Minnesota
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM