By Lincoln Arneal
It’s No. 1 versus No. 5. It’s the top two teams atop the Big Ten standings. It’s a rematch of last year’s national championship match.
But to Nebraska coach John Cook, the meeting between the top-ranked Huskers and Wisconsin is just another conference road game. Instead, he wants NU to maintain its focus on the 10-week league schedule, staying emotionally even and improving so they are peaking in December.
Even though the Huskers are the higher-ranked team and looking to break the Badgers’ eight-match winning streak in the series, Cook said NU doesn’t have any pressure because they will still be in first place regardless of the outcome.
“We’re not protecting anything,” he said. “It’s a great challenge for us and this is what you have to do if you want to be in the hunt for a Big Ten championship. You gotta go find a way to win.”
Through the first half of the schedule, Nebraska and Wisconsin have proven themselves among the best teams in the Big Ten. They will kick off the second half of conference play Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the UW Field House.
“I think our team does a really great job of just taking things one point at a time, one game at a time,” NU senior Madi Kubik said Tuesday. “For tomorrow’s match, we’re really excited for the opportunity to go and compete there.”
The Badgers will look different from the last time the two teams met. Gone are fifth-year seniors: middle blocker Dana Rettke, setter Sydney Hilley and libero Lauren Barnes. That core helped UW win the past three Big Ten titles. However, some key faces remain for Wisconsin, like Final Four MVP Anna Smreck and middle blockers Danielle Hart and Devyn Robinson.
There are plenty of changes this year too. Like the Huskers, Wisconsin is also running a 6-2 offensive system this season with Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill. In addition, the Badgers added two top-tier transfers in Sarah Franklin (Michigan State) and Caroline Crawford (Kansas). UW also features Gulce Guctekin, the top libero at the 2020 U19 European Championships.
“They’re loaded,” Cook said.
The match will also wrap up a stretch of seven of the last nine matches on the road. Kubik said they’ve done a great job focusing on each match and staying in their routine while they deal with all the travel.
The Huskers will face another hostile crowd at the UW Fieldhouse, which was second last season in average attendance at 7,504 fans per match. Kubik said she isn’t a big fan of the gym.
“It’s kind of like a dungeon a little bit because the fans sit up (top) but it’s in the dark,” she said. “The gym’s not great and it’s really cold too with the wood (floors) and everything.”
Cook, who coached at Wisconsin for seven years, had fond memories of the Badgers’ home court. He said he used to play pick-up basketball there and watched boxing, wrestling and a throwback basketball game.
“It’s a great venue and they’ve obviously made a lot of upgrades since I was there,” Cook said. “Is it a tough place to go? Yeah, every place in the Big Ten is tough when they get 7,000 fans. But it’s fun, and our players thrive on that.”
ALLICK HONORED AGAIN — Bekka Allick earned her second straight Big Ten freshman of the week honors Monday. The 6-foot-4 middle blocker averaged 3.17 kills on a .548 hitting percentage in wins over Purdue and Illinois last week. She also chipped in .83 blocks per set.
Against Purdue, which features five-time weekly honoree freshman Eva Hudson, Allick set a career-high with 12 kills.
“She works hard. She prepares really well. She’s very committed to getting better every day,” Cook said about Allick,” Cook said. “She doesn’t act like a freshman. Part of that is she came early and that helped prepare to get through the season and be more prepared than if she just showed up in summer.”
ON TOP — Following losses by Texas and Louisville last week, Nebraska was voted No. 1 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll. The Huskers earned 48 first-place votes, while No. 2 Texas received 14. San Diego and Louisville each topped the ballot for one voter. This week’s poll is the 102nd week that the Huskers have been in the top spot, an NCAA record.
SUPRISE RECORD — Kubik said she didn’t know senior Nicklin Hames was nearing the school record for career assists. Hames broke Fiona Nepo’s record Saturday night in the second set against Illinois. Hames was also caught off guard when she was interviewed on television after breaking the record.
“We had no idea she was close and then it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, Nicklin beat the record. You’re like, Oh, cool. All right,'” Kubik said. “It’s just kind of a commitment to her and the way that she has been setting the entire time that I’ve been here with her and hitting off with her. She’s so consistent. We’re just really impressed with her and it’s really good to have her as a teammate.”