LINCOLN — If you had told Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook at the start of the season that No. 1 Penn State would be one of two teams tied for the Big Ten lead halfway through conference play, he wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.
But if you had said Cook’s Huskers would be neck-and-neck with the Nittany Lions, losing one match in a brutal opening-half schedule, he might not have copped to being surprised. But he would have said a few things must’ve gone NU’s way to offset the loss of four starters from a year ago.
“There were so many question marks,” said Cook, whose No. 7 Huskers are 9-1 in the conference with wins over five Big Ten rivals ranked in the top 17 spots of this week’s coaches poll.
Asked at his weekly Monday press conference to enumerate the factors behind NU’s success, Cook pointed to a number of strengths the team has maintained from a year ago — offensive balance, serving and defense.
Despite losing three starting pin hitters, the Huskers have equaled last year’s offensive production at 14.4 kills per set. And while NU’s hitting percentage is down slightly this year (.264 from .287 in 2016), the team is more balanced. Five Huskers are averaging between 3.37 and 2.14 kills per set.
“Our middles can have a good night. Our left sides. (Opposite hitter) Jazz (Sweet) can have a good night. (Setter) Kelly (Hunter) can have a good night,” Cook said. “I think we present some challenges to defend us.”
The next two areas work in tandem. Nebraska lost a pair of its six regular servers last season in Kadie Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes. In have stepped junior libero Kenzie Maloney and freshman defensive specialist Hayley Densberger. Serving teams out of system has been key in NU’s hot start to Big Ten play.
Even though the Huskers are a notch below where they were last season as a blocking team, they have held conference opponents to a league-low .183 hitting percentage. That number becomes even more impressive when considering seven of Nebraska’s 10 conference matches have come against the Big Ten’s top six teams in hitting percentage, each of which ranks in the nation’s top 25 in attacking efficiency.
“We’re holding teams to pretty low numbers under their averages,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of really good offensive teams, and that’s what’s kept us in there.”
That defensive heat could be turned up even further, Cook said, in the second half of Big Ten play, starting this weekend at No. 10 Michigan State on Friday and Michigan on Sunday. With three new starters in the front row, the Huskers still have room to improve blocking, Cook said. NU had 11 blocks in the first match against Michigan State, a 3-1 win on Oct. 4.
Cook also hopes to improve the Huskers’ out-of-system attack, when the team is forced to hit under less-than-ideal conditions after the first touch. The team drills out-of-system scenarios daily with Maloney setting if Hunter has to dig the first ball.
Nebraska aims to hit .200 out of system, Cook said, but currently is hitting only .050 according to the team’s internal metrics.
“Anni (Albrecht) hasn’t hit out of system in three years. Mikaela (Foecke) has, and Jazz is new,” Cook said. Those are the three people getting the out-of-system swings. And Kenzie is new at setting it, so it’s a work in progress.”
NU remains No. 7 in poll
For only the second time in the 35-year history of the coaches poll, the entire top 25 was unchanged on Monday from the week before. Nebraska again was ranked No. 7 and Creighton No. 16.
According to the AVCA, consecutive polls also were identical in October 1983.
There was some movement in the NCAA RPI rankings, however, with the Huskers moving up to No. 5 and Creighton coming in at No. 15.
The Huskers also checked in at No. 2 in the weekly Pablo rankings, which use a formula that weights scoring margins and accounts for home and road matches. Penn State is No. 1 in all three rankings.
Schedule favors Huskers
As the Huskers try to repeat as Big Ten champions, they face a clearer path to the league title than any of their main challengers.
After the trip to East Lansing on Friday, Nebraska will only play one more ranked opponent the rest of the regular season, a rematch with No. 17 Purdue at the Devaney Center on Nov. 3.
The rest of the teams in the top half of the Big Ten face a more difficult schedule. Penn State still has to play No. 9 Wisconsin twice and at No. 5 Minnesota. The Gophers have two meetings left with fifth-place Illinois and a trip to Purdue before finishing with the Nittany Lions. After facing Nebraska, Michigan State still has matches left with Penn State, Illinois and Purdue.
Wisconsin, which drew the league’s toughest schedule, already has five conference losses and essentially is out of the title race.
“We just want to have our team have fun and go for it,” Cook said. “That’s kind of been our mantra all year: ‘Hey, we’re going for it.’ We’re attacking everything we do. We’re not protecting anything.
“There’s going to be some epic matches down the stretch here.”
Back-row attack another weapon
As outside hitters Foecke and Albrecht have adjusted to playing both front and back row, the Huskers are taking advantage of a rarity in college volleyball, having two players who can attack from the back row.
Cook said Nebraska is setting a back-row attack about as often as it did last year when opposite hitter Kadie Rolfzen was NU’s main back-row attacker from the right side. But with both Foecke and Albrecht playing middle back when they’re in the back row, the Huskers are attacking with a set often called a “Bick,” a combination of the words “back” and “quick.”
Even when Foecke or Albrecht don’t get a kill, Cook said the threat helps keep opposing defenses from double-teaming NU’s front-row attackers on either side. It also gives Nebraska another hitting option if a front-row attacker has to play a ball on first contact.
Cook said in an era of specialization, when most college teams sub out their front-row players for defensive specialists in the back row, having two six-rotation outside hitters isn’t common. NU will see another six-rotation outside hitter on Friday in Michigan State’s Autumn Bailey.
“That’s why it’s so valuable to find outside hitters that are true six-rotation players,” Cook said. “That’s why we’re always trying to recruit six-rotation outsides if we can.”