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Plenty Still to Play for as No. 1 Huskers Close out Season at Wisconsin and Minnesota

by Nov 23, 2023Nebraska Volleyball

Nebraska Cornhusker celebrate a win over the Wisconsin Badgers in 5 sets during a college volleyball match on Saturday, October 21, 2023, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Nebraska earned the right to celebrate a little early this season, clinching a share of the Big Ten title at home against Michigan Friday then winning it outright on Sunday in Iowa City. It’s Nebraska’s first title since 2017 and first outright championship since the year prior.

There were a few close calls along the way, but Nebraska made it through the first nine weeks of the Big Ten season without a loss, while second-place Wisconsin fell three times.

“It’s hard to do,” Coach John Cook said. “We’re probably eight points away from being in fourth place; that’s how close it is. So it’s really hard to do. I told you guys I think it’s harder than winning a national championship. It’s hard, and so you saw the emotion of it, even though we’d already clinched part of it, but to win it outright is a huge statement.”

What was that statement?

“That we were the best team in the Big Ten and found a way to win the championship and we did it in week nine,” Cook said. “So we’ve out-survived everybody else. That’s a statement.”

When the ball hit the floor on the final point in Iowa City, the bench rushed the court and dogpiled together in celebration. The outpouring of emotion caught their coach off-guard because of how even-keeled the team had been throughout the journey, but Merritt Beason — who got caught at the bottom of the pile — said the team discussed it beforehand.

The celebration continued in the locker room with the coaches joining in.

“It’s still pretty hard to put into words, I think,” Beason said. “We’ve been working so hard since January together as a team and we knew that was something that we wanted to accomplish. So if I had to describe it in one word, I would say ‘surreal,’ just because it’s all the hard work and all the hours that we’ve been putting in starting to pay off in a way that we can kind of grasp and see it pay off.

“It was very, very exciting. I think, obviously, the celebration in the locker room was so cool, just with each other and with the coaches. It was just us as a team in there and that was really, really special to have,”

Taking care of business when the Huskers did coupled with Wisconsin’s losses to Penn State and Purdue took some of the shine off of the final week of the season with nothing on the line against the Badgers and Minnesota, but Cook said his team still has plenty to play for as it gears up for the postseason.

“I think these two matches this week are just going to really help prepare us for what we could see in the NCAA Tournament,” Cook said. “Wisconsin’s probably the most physical team in the country, so this will be really, really good. We’re just trying again to get better. How can we go compete against these teams? I think our players will be fired up — as long as they don’t eat too much turkey and pumpkin pie; that’s always the worry over Thanksgiving.”

Cook said the team celebrated Thanksgiving together after practice on Wednesday. Thursday, Friday and Saturday are business as usual. One thing the Huskers can be thankful for is progress from Lindsay Krause, the starting outside hitter who has missed the previous 10 matches with a severe ankle injury. Cook still didn’t have a return timeline when he spoke on Tuesday, but she’s doing more than she has been.

“She’s ramping up every day,” Cook said. “It’s just how fast we can push her. It just depends on how she recovers each day. I don’t know how she recovered from yesterday today, but we’re going to push her as hard as we can.”

The last time the Huskers and Badgers played was a five-set thriller that saw some wild swings. In the end, the Huskers made the plays later needed to end their losing streak.

“It was a very close match,” Cook said about Huskers-Badgers round one. “We got blocked, made a lot of errors, so those are some things we can try to clean up. We’ve got to serve tougher and we got to go up there and handle their environment. Same with Minnesota. Each week’s a test. The game really doesn’t have any memory. So that’s why we’re working on how we’re going to get better this week.”

Beason said the Badgers’ physicality is what separates them from everyone else.

“It’s unmatched right now in college volleyball, just how big of a front row they have, how tall they are, how physical they are,” Beason said. “For us, there are very few teams that can challenge us in that way. And so I think their physicality sets them apart and it’s more of you have to beat physicality in a different way … I think for us, that sets them apart and kind of changes the way that we have to approach the match a little bit, especially the second time around.”

Wisconsin is first in the Big Ten in hitting at .308 and second in opponent hitting at .145, while Nebraska is second in hitting at .286 and first in opponent hitting at .131. Both teams are top-10 nationally in both categories.

Anna Smrek, the 6-foot-9 opposite for Wisconsin averaging 2.53 kills per set on .404 hitting, missed a three-match stretch including both recent losses but returned for the team’s sweep at Indiana last week. Outside hitter Sarah Franklin is one of six Big Ten players averaging better than 4.0 kills per set at 4.12 on .306 hitting.

The Huskers hosted round one at the Devaney Center, which means they’re heading to the UW Field House for round two before continuing on to Minneapolis Saturday.

“It’s similar to Penn State and Purdue,” Cook said of the arena in Madison. “It’s loud and the fans are great, just like here. They’ve got their traditions and they have traditions they did when I was coaching there. So it’s a cool place to play, but it’s loud, and again, we’ve got players that haven’t really been through many of those are getting more used to it. But that’s everywhere in the Big Ten. Minnesota is the same thing, I’m sure it’ll be sold out. Wisconsin will be sold out. We’re getting used to that; hopefully we enjoy playing in those environments. I think that’s what makes it fun.”

The last time Nebraska went undefeated in the regular season was 2000. The Huskers swept through the NCAA Tournament to run the table that year as well, though Cook said it was exhausting for that team. The burden of going undefeated became all-consuming and nearly cost them in the second round, which is why Cook has emphasized the game-by-game approach so much this year.

“That pressure is going to come with being undefeated and you can’t really do anything about it, honestly,” Beason said. “But you can control how you react to it and how you respond to it. I think as a team, we’ve done a really good job of just narrowing the focus to the match that we’re playing at that moment, the point that’s going on at that moment, the practice that we’re in at that moment. We’ve done a very good job of kind of just being where our feet are and kind of minimizing the outside voices, which I think has helped us a ton.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be there a little bit and there’s going to be times when you feel it, but I think just reminding ourselves that this is what we’ve been dreaming of as a team since January and so we’re kind of getting to live out those dreams but also just reminding each other to stay present in the moment has helped us a ton.”

First serve on Friday is set for 3 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

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