Huskers Eye Big Opportunity Against No. 3 Wisconsin

By Lincoln Arneal

Kenzie Knuckles doesn’t need any big speeches or hype videos to get up for this week’s match against Wisconsin. 

When asked if she had any extra motivation to close the regular season knocking off the third-ranked Badgers, Knuckles was blunt with her assessment. 

“Yeah, I can’t lie. We haven’t beat them yet,” she said. “I have a good feeling about it. If we play our game, if we play Nebraska volleyball, we’ll be fine.”

The senior defensive specialist has come up short seven times against the Badgers in her career as part of an eight-match winning streak by UW dating back to 2018. Last year, Wisconsin clinched the Big Ten championship against the Huskers in the final week of the season and then won its first national championship with a five-set victory over NU. The Badgers also ended Knuckles’ freshman season with a win in the regional finals. 

The Big Ten rivals meet again Friday night at the Devaney Center with the Big Ten title on the line. Wisconsin is a game ahead of the fifth-ranked Huskers in the standings and can clinch the Big Ten championship with a win this week. NU needs a victory Friday and then either a win over Minnesota or a Wisconsin loss to Ohio State on Saturday to earn at least a share of the title. 

Despite all the history, NU coach John Cook said his goal is to get the Huskers to treat this like any other match. He said they haven’t talked specifically about Wisconsin, but instead have focused on getting to the final week of the regular season being in position to win a title. 

They’ve been talking about their goal to win the Big Ten title since January and now they are in position to achieve it. 

“As it gets later in the season, the points get bigger and bigger. There’s more on the line,” Cook said. “You want to be in the poker game? You got to throw in more chips. So all the chips are on the table.” 

The Badgers look a little different than the last time the teams met a month ago. Anna Smrek is only playing in the middle while Jade Demps received more time at opposite. Last match Caroline Crawford was featured at middle blocker, but she hasn’t played since Nov. 3. Also, the Badgers experimented with a 5-1 offensive system against Rutgers. 

Wisconsin has plenty of weapons. Sarah Franklin put up 21 kills against the Huskers last time out. Danielle Hart has been on fire lately for the Badgers as she has 36 kills on 51 swings without any errors. Devyn Robinson posted a 17-kill, eight-block performance against Penn State last week.

“Defensively it’s a big challenge, but we’ve got to side out better if we want it,” Cook said. “We got to be better offensively and side out better because we gave up too many runs.”

Madi Kubik, the senior outside hitter, said NU needs to worry about what they are doing and not get too caught up on Wisconsin’s lineup or any past results. 

“We’re focusing on the things that we can do and the things that are really important to our team and what helps us to play great volleyball regardless of who’s on the other side of the net,” Kubik said. “In past times that we’ve played them, we haven’t always been 100 percent on those things.”

In addition to playing for a Big Ten title, the Huskers’ play this weekend will also impact their seed for the NCAA tournament. When asked if the Big Ten champ should get one of the top four seeds that host the regional round, both Cook and Kubik agreed with the sentiment, but acknowledged that nothing is certain when it comes to the selection committee. 

“Don’t ever guess with the NCAA,” Cook said. “All I know is whoever wins the Big Ten certainly deserves it. If you want to host, win the Big Ten.”

NEW CONNECTION — When Kennedi Orr checked into the Ohio State game more than a week ago, she was in a new position. Every time Orr had played this season, she was either running a solo offensive system or the No. 1 setter. 

However, with Hames starting on the court, she came off the bench for the first time. In addition, she was paired with opposite Lindsay Krause. The sophomore outside hitter said they mesh well because they have similar personalities and they try to bring some fire when they check in. 

“When we don’t start the match, we make a really big effort to bring energy onto the court,” Krause said. “We want to make sure that when we come in we bring it up no matter where it is. We want to bring up the level even higher.”

While they worked in practice on their chemistry, they had not connected much in matches with just two assists in the previous two months. In the final two sets against Ohio State and the next two matches, Orr assisted on 14 of Krause’s 20 kills. In that same time frame, Orr assisted on 10 kills from Batenhorst and eight total from Kubik, Hord and Allick. 

Krause’s most efficient performance of the season came against Iowa with 10 kills on 15 swings and no errors. 

“I think they are in a good rhythm,” Cook 

KUBIK CLAIMS AWARD — Kubik earned her fourth career Big Ten Player of the Week award on Monday. 

She recorded 14 kills and 9 digs against Iowa and added a season-high 17 kills plus 11 digs against Purdue on Sunday, while hitting .347 for the week. 

Kubik won the weekly league honors once as a freshman and back-to-back weeks last season.

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