LINCOLN — Perhaps the most surprising theme that emerged from Nebraska’s four-set loss to Minnesota on Saturday was the breakdowns in areas coach John Cook tries to develop as the Huskers’ strengths.
Serving. Ball handling. Putting the pressure on other teams. Once his stomach had settled after reviewing video of the loss, Cook admitted on Monday that the Gophers held the advantage in all three of those categories. The victory moved Minnesota up to No. 3 in this week’s coaches poll and leaves the Gophers alone atop the Big Ten standings, unbeaten at 6-0 in conference play.
The gut punch came in the third set, when the Gophers, leading 12-11, reeled off the next 11 points. Nebraska, which fell to No. 5 in this week’s rankings, never recovered from the stretch that put each of those three deficiencies on display. Stephanie Samedy, Minnesota’s All-America sophomore, served three aces that made the Huskers’ back row look befuddled.
During the run, Nebraska’s offense failed to put together a series of touches that could result in a quality scoring chance. NU outside hitter Mikaela Foecke was blocked once and committed two more hitting errors, and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins was called for a net violation.
It was a meltdown the likes of which Nebraska (14-2 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) hadn’t experienced in some time.
“I was shocked at Game 3 with how we responded after winning Game 2,” Cook said. “I only threw up in my mouth about three times watching the match on video. I thought in Game 4 we would make a run and get it to a Game 5. We did some nice things, we just weren’t very consistent and we didn’t put any pressure on Minnesota.”
In volleyball, attacking and defense aren’t neatly divided. They complement each other, and a failure to apply pressure with your attack and serve puts the opposing team into a better position to run their own offense.
Cook noted the Huskers’ inability to make Minnesota uncomfortable. Nebraska is tied with Illinois for the Big Ten’s lead in aces per set, but NU recorded a season-low one ace Saturday, and too often, Gopher passers put setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson into an easy rhythm. Minnesota’s .280 hitting mark, which Cook said Nebraska should take “personally,” was the highest the Huskers have allowed all season.
Meanwhile, poor first touches kept Nebraska’s attack in neutral. Aside from libero Kenzie Maloney, none of the Huskers’ primary passers were immune from struggles in serve receive as Foecke, Lexi Sun, Jazz Sweet and defensive specialist Hayley Densberger each had shaky moments handling first contact.
The ball-handling breakdowns sent Husker setter Nicklin Hames on regular chases to make the second touch, and when faced with an imperfect set, NU hitters still played it safe too often to Cook’s liking, giving the Gophers easy digs that led to transition chances that are Minnesota’s bread and butter.
“That’s probably the key. We were not attacking like we needed to,” Cook said. “Again, that’s ball handling. It’s putting the ball in a situation where we can take a swing. When you give them easy balls, they’ve got some dynamic hitters that are hard to stop one on one.
“Attack mode. You’ve got to be in attack mode. That’s how you pressure teams.”
Better out-of-system attacking. Tougher serving. Improved first contact. That’s the three-tiered pyramid of improvement Cook hopes to see with the Huskers heading into a week that features a home match with Indiana (11-6, 2-4) on Wednesday night, followed by a trip to No. 9 Penn State (13-3, 4-2), which begins a four-match road trip that makes up NU’s toughest stretch of the season.
Following the match in Happy Valley, the Huskers play at No. 8 Wisconsin on Oct. 19, and the next day, make the trip to Minneapolis for a rematch with Minnesota. The road trip ends Oct. 24 at 12th-place Ohio State.
Given the polish the Huskers need to apply to the basic parts of the program’s identity, Cook said he wished this was a week NU played Friday and Saturday so he could spend the first three days of the week going back to fundamentals.
The coach saw a couple of “little things that were slipping” the previous week in practice that foreshadowed Saturday’s loss. The same details showed up in a review of the Minnesota game film that Cook has already watched with some of the team.
Two days of workouts will have to do to tighten the screws before Nebraska faces an improved Hoosier team, then hits the road for a stretch that could well define its season.
“We learned some lessons Saturday night,” Cook said. “Hopefully we’re going to come in this week and get better because, as you can see, in the Big Ten, it’s a tough night every match. We’ve got two more tough opponents this week heading into a big road swing. We’ve got to dial it up a little bit.”