LINCOLN — Sweeping then-No. 2 Penn State on the road last Friday might have served notice that despite losing four seniors from last year, Nebraska is still a contender to win its second straight Big Ten title.
But before one of the most anticipated weekends of the regular season, NU coach John Cook said it’s still far too soon to make pronouncements about how good the Huskers could be this fall.
“It’s still early,” Cook said. “I’ve told you we’re going to find out what this team’s about, and they took a step at Penn State, but that doesn’t mean we’ve arrived or we’re good. We’re trying to be great in the Big Ten right now, and we’ve got to do it for nine weeks. Then we’ll talk about how good this team will be at the end of that.
“I just think (the conference is) so balanced right now. It’s like playing craps in Vegas, man. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
A bit of clarity, however, should come by Sunday after No. 8 Nebraska (9-3, 2-0 Big Ten) hosts two other top-10 teams — No. 3 Minnesota (12-1, 1-1) and No. 7 Wisconsin (10-1, 1-1) — bringing together the winners of the past three Big Ten titles at the Devaney Center.
It would appear the conference front-loaded NU’s schedule with the Big Ten’s favorites, starting with last weekend in Happy Valley. After Nebraska plays Minnesota on Friday at the early start time of 5 p.m. to avoid NU’s football game at Illinois, the Huskers host Wisconsin at 7 p.m. Saturday before a home match next Wednesday against No. 16 Michigan State, which handed both the Gophers and Badgers their first defeats of the season last weekend.
“We always know, ever since I’ve been here, that Minnesota-Wisconsin has been a big weekend for us,” Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter said.
Said Cook: “These are the teams competing for the Big Ten championships. In that regard, you’ve got to play two great teams back-to-back. Right now, it might be the toughest weekend in the conference playing those two teams back-to-back.”
By beating both the Gophers and Badgers in Lincoln last season, the Huskers separated themselves in the Big Ten title race. NU survived a five-set victory against Minnesota two nights after sweeping Wisconsin, giving the Huskers the room they would need to win the conference title by one game despite falling in five sets in the
Minnesota rematch in Minneapolis.
Nebraska isn’t alone in needing to replace key pieces of last year’s successes. Minnesota graduated 2016 national player of the year Sarah Wilhite and twin middle blockers Paige and Hannah Tapp. But coach Hugh McCutcheon has reloaded the Gophers with young stars in a fast-tempo offense orchestrated by junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who has led Minnesota to the final four in each of the past two seasons.
Her new weapon is one of college volleyball’s top young players — freshman opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy averages 4.38 kills per set. Sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart has picked up where she left off after a solid debut season, and middle blockers Regan Pittman and Molly Lohman, replacing the Tapps, combine to average nearly three blocks per set.
“They try to get you to be undisciplined with speed, so you have to be disciplined,” Cook said. “One of the reasons I think we’ve done well against them over the years is we preach discipline every day in this gym. We talk about discipline using your technique.”
Wisconsin was also clicking along before a five-set loss to Michigan State last Friday. Freshman setter Sydney Hilley has taken over for All-American Lauren Carlini and has the Badgers hitting .325, the fifth-best mark in the country, despite missing last year’s leading attacker, Molly Haggerty, who hasn’t played this year because of a back injury.
The Badgers’ strength is in the middle with All-Big Ten junior Tionna Williams and the addition of 6-foot-8 freshman Dana Rettke, who leads the team in kills (3.33/set) and hitting percentage (.453).
Minnesota and Wisconsin both started conference play in the conversation for winning the Big Ten title, and by beating Penn State, the Huskers couldn’t help but join them. But Hunter said her team played well last weekend in part because it dialed in to the details without fretting about the big picture.
That’s what the Huskers feel they can control since they’re not going to sneak up on anyone. Do that each weekend and the conference race ultimately will take care of itself.
“Obviously sweeping the No. 2 team in the country is going to put an expectation on your back,” Hunter said, “but we’re just focused on trying to play every point as hard as you can, error-free and clean volleyball for one point.”
Larson’s jersey retired
Nebraska will honor former All-American Jordan Larson during a ceremony to retire her jersey between the second and third sets against Minnesota on Friday.
Larson, who helped the Huskers reach two final fours and played on the 2012 and 2016 indoor U.S. Olympic teams, will be the eighth player in program history to have her jersey hang in the rafters at the Devaney Center.
Where: Devaney Center
When: 5 p.m. Friday vs. Minnesota
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM
When: 7 p.m. Saturday vs. Wisconsin
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM