By Lincoln Arneal
Through the first five weeks of the season, Nebraska dropped just three sets as it amassed an 11-0 record. Each of those setbacks came when NU already led 2-0.
During the last two weekends, the Huskers have lost four sets, two of which came in openers. Furthermore, NU was forced to stage furious rallies to pull out first-set wins against Michigan State and Michigan.
NU trailed 20-15 and 23-21 against the Spartans before claiming the set. The next night NU was down 20-16 and faced five set points before rallying to win the set 29-27 against the Wolverines.
Even though NU remains undefeated, its early match struggles have caused some concern entering the Big Ten grind. The second-ranked Huskers hope to get off to a better start this weekend as they host Michigan State on Friday and No. 13 Penn State Saturday at the Devaney Center.
Nebraska coach John Cook said his team needs to play with more urgency, which falls to the players to up their intensity. While the rallies have helped build resiliency, he hopes NU can find ways to jump on opponents early.
One difference that might help this weekend is a return home. All four slow starts came on the road in front of packed gyms. Cook said they are getting other teams’ best shots and it takes awhile to adjust to the environments.
“I’m not out there. They got to figure that out,” he said. “They know what they have to do. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
For junior outside hitter Lindsay Krause, the slow starts come down to confidence. She said playing in front of a sold-out Deveney Center should help. Plus, winning a handful of matches after sluggish starts should increase belief in themselves to handle adversity.
“Coming back home this weekend will do really good for us,” she said. “Also understanding that we can come back in certain situations and maybe having experience doing that in certain sets will instill belief in us in the future that we can do it because we’ve done it before.”
Sophomore middle blocker Becka Allick said there’s been a learning curve with so many newcomers on the roster. She said the team allowed its emotions and other distractions get the best of it early in matches, and they need to fight through and maintain their composure.
“We just expected because we’re bigger, we’re stronger, faster. All of these things. Oh, our record’s great. We were just going to win the first set because this is their name and this is their jersey,” Allick said. “It’s been a mixture of composure, but also entitlement. How can we push through entitlement and remember who you are and who you play it for and everyone deserves our best shot as well.”
Allick said NU will benefit from being home and back in its comfort zone. Daily routine, sleeping in their own beds and hanging out with friends and family after matches will help, she said, but NU also needs to keep up the aggression on the court and not get into “pillow fights.”
The Huskers will be in a position of familiarity on Friday, facing the Spartans for the second time in seven days. NU won the match against MSU (11-6, 3-3) last weekend but played one of its worst sets of the season in the second set as it recorded just six kills compared to nine hitting errors.
Even though the scouting report for the Spartans is fresh, Allick said NU needs to exert its will and not be complacent.
“It’s really easy to want to get comfortable and be like, ‘Oh, we already beat them,’” she said. “But you never know because with us being so close to having beaten them, that fire that they probably felt after losing is still going to be there. I expect some bitterness.”
The following night, the Nittany Lions (12-3, 6-0) will pose the toughest test of the Big Ten season thus far. They are one of three undefeated teams in league play – joining NU and Wisconsin – and have won their last eight matches.
They feature multiple transfers familiar to the Huskers in setter Mac Podraza (Ohio State) and Jess Mruzik (Michigan) plus outside hitter Camryn Hannah (Clemson). Penn State leads the Big Ten and is fifth in the nation with 2.95 blocks per set. Mruzik is second in the conference averaging more than five points per set.
Krause is interested to see how all the pieces fit together for the Nittany Lions.
“We’re really excited especially because I think we feel well prepared because they obviously have a few transfers from inside the Big Ten that we’ve played against on other teams,” she said. “That’s gonna be really interesting to see them all play together and against them when we have experienced playing against them on other teams.”
Even though the Huskers have been on the road for four matches, Cook expects a raucous environment for this home stand.
“Our players are gonna be really fired up to play at home, and I think our fans will be fired up,” he said. “They missed us some as they went three weeks without a volleyball match. I think it’s gonna be a really fun weekend.”