LINCOLN — At this time last season, the Nebraska volleyball team had buffed away most of its rough edges, providing a clear image of a team that would make a run to its third straight final four and win its second national championship in three years.
By mid-October 2017, the Huskers had won six matches against top-15 opponents, the caveat being that five of those matches came at home in the Devaney Center.
But this year’s Huskers, with four new players in the regular playing rotation, remain an unfinished product. At the start of the season, NU coach John Cook foresaw a year full of ups and downs — “wild matches,” he called them.
The next two weeks provide another learning opportunity, to test NU’s mettle against the best of the Big Ten, and therefore, the country. But this year, the studies for No. 5 Nebraska (15-2, 6-1 Big Ten) will come abroad. NU’s next four matches will come on the road, and starting with Saturday’s 7 p.m. match at No. 9 Penn State (14-3, 5-2) on BTN, the Huskers’ next three opponents will be ranked in the top 10.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing what this team can do,” Cook said. “I still think we are a major work in progress to what we can become, and I think they do, too. I think they realize that. We still have got a lot of work and a lot of improvement to go.”
Nebraska is still trying to tighten the screws on its ball handling. Faulty first touches have been noticeable in the Huskers’ two most recent matches, which have featured long scoring runs by opponents. In last Saturday’s loss to No. 3 Minnesota, the Gophers ran off 11 straight points in the third set, nearly unheard of by a Devaney Center visitor.
And in Wednesday’s win over Indiana, Nebraska let a 17-9 lead slip away when the Hoosiers went on an 11-3 run aided by a variety of breakdowns in NU’s passing and setting.
“I think that’s one of the things we’re working on is even if they do roll off three or four points, that we need a next-point mentality and just attack on everything,” Husker setter Nicklin Hames said. “Go for that swing or go for that ball. Just having that mindset really helps. I think we’re just working through it because we kind of let some points off against Minnesota. I think it’s been one of our struggles, so we’re just working through it.”
While NU’s offense, with a freshman setter and two new attackers, keeps searching for its gear, the Huskers’ defense has been stout. Nebraska continues to lead the NCAA in opponents’ hitting percentage, holding teams to .123 hitting.
With freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach leading the Big Ten and ranking second nationally in blocks per set (1.66), NU has put up at least nine blocks in 10 straight matches.
“Defense is your first way of attacking, really,” opposite hitter Jazz Sweet said. “Just kind of looking at it with that mindset. We spend a lot of time on it every single day. Now, we’re starting to kind of get used to our setups and who we’re blocking next to. It’s looking a little more rhythmic for sure.”
Few teams, however, can test an opponent’s defenses like the Nittany Lions, even though coach Russ Rose was tasked this year with rebuilding a team that lost first-team All-Americans Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington.
The new pieces of the Penn State machine are top of the line. The nation’s No. 1 recruiting class landed PSU freshman outside hitter Jonni Parker, who had 18 kills in the Nittany Lions’ win at No. 17 Purdue on Wednesday. Another freshman, 6-foot-4 middle Kaitlyn Hord, who sat out the Purdue match, is hitting .379 this season.
Rose also bolstered the rebuilt lineup by adding graduate transfer outside hitter Taylor Leath, who was named the 2016 ACC player of the year at North Carolina.
The Nittany Lions, at first glance, appear to be a step below their most recent teams, hitting 70 points below last year’s club. But Cook said Penn State’s athleticism remains on brand.
“They’re still Penn State,” he said. “They’re talented, big, physical.”
And they’re a riddle Nebraska has solved seven times in a row. This is the teams’ first meeting since the five-set Husker win in last year’s final four in Kansas City, but NU also has taken the last three meetings in Rec Hall, including a sweep to open Big Ten play last season.
State College has been, of late, the place the Huskers have found the play to match their potential. Cook has mentioned several times in recent years that he thinks NU may be a better road team. Cook sees the Huskers trying to play too perfect in front of college volleyball’s largest home crowd, and being the visitors can sharpen the team’s focus.
Four road matches over the next 11 days will give the Huskers a chance to test their coach’s hypothesis.
“I think they’re young and they’re trying to please,” Cook said. “Our sophomore class never lost a match (at home) until this year. They didn’t lose a match here last year. It’s just the expectation is always to win here. I think that makes us uptight.”
Nebraska at Penn State
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM