By Lincoln Arneal
At least until late Wednesday night, the word Wisconsin cannot be spoken around the Nebraska volleyball program.
No matter that a matchup with the No. 1 team in the country looms at the end of the week, the focus for now is on Northwestern, which the Huskers play at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Evanston, Illinois.
During his weekly press conference, NU coach John Cook emphasized that the attention of the second-ranked Huskers was solely on the Wildcats, who suffered a five-set loss at Minnesota on Sunday.
“We’re focused on Northwestern right now. They’re good, and we went five (sets) there last year so they definitely have our attention,” Cook said. “We got our hands full right now without worrying about what’s happening this weekend.”
Cook started practice on Monday by reminding the team of the task at hand. The home match can wait. They need to focus on their mid-week Big Ten showdown on the road.
Northwestern (9-9, 3-5 Big Ten) features Julia Sangiacomo, a graduate transfer from Santa Clara averaging 4.59 kills per set during Big Ten matches. The 6-foot-5 outside hitter recorded 33 kills in a five-set win against Purdue and 32 versus Michigan State.
Cook called her the leader for Big Ten Player of the Year.
He was also impressed by the job Northwestern coach Shane Davis did to build the team back up to be competitive. The Wildcats lost nine players from last year’s roster, including six to the transfer portal. Temi Thomas-Ailara (Wisconsin) and Hannah Lesiak (Long Beach State) were the top scorers from last year’s team, while Desiree Becker (UCLA) was the best blocker.
Davis added several transfers in the rebuild, but homegrown talent has made the Wildcats competitive. Senior Alexa Rousseau leads the offense, which is hitting .241, while junior libero Elliee Stinson leads the league in digs per set and is 10th in aces.
While the outside world, including fans and media, is buzzing about Saturday’s matchup between the top two teams in the rankings, Cook said he stays busy watching Northwestern film.
“We have no problem staying focused on Wednesday,” he said. “For us, it’s business as usual.”
On Sunday, the Iowa women’s basketball team set an attendance record – most fans at an NCAA women’s basketball game – by attracting 55,646 fans at Kinnick Stadium for an outdoor exhibition game against DePaul. The previous record was set in 2002 when Connecticut and Oklahoma played in front of a crowd of 29,619 in San Antonio’s Alamodome.
Cook said he was impressed with the crowd size, but his first thought was that Nebraska almost doubled that for Volleyball Day in Nebraska.
School and arena volleyball attendance records have fallen all over the country. Houston was the record-breaker this week as the Cougars hosted 7,054 fans at the Fertitta Center for their match against Texas on Sunday.
It’s not limited to college sports, as 17,143 fans watched the New York Liberty play the Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.
“Women’s sports is on fire right now,” Cook said. “I think the stadium match had a lot to do with it. Now you’re seeing that spill over to a lot of volleyball matches and that’s why everybody’s breaking records.”
Nebraska isn’t just playing in front of big crowds at the Devaney Center this season.
For their six away matches, the Huskers are averaging crowds of 4,679, which would rank fifth if compared to the list of top home averages this season. Behind its 92,003 attendance mark in Memorial Stadium, NU is averaging a home crowd of more than 16,000 this season, which leads the country.
The two smallest crowds NU has played in front of this year were 2,415 at Purdue’s Holloway Gym and 2,632 at Indiana’s Wilkinson Hall. Both were sellouts.
Cook said NU has been traveling with additional security this year and has had a police officer sitting on the bench with them.
At Michigan, Cook was delayed going from the locker room to the postgame radio interview because people wanted selfies and to wish him well. He said the team needed a police escort when leaving the arena due to the throngs of fans.
Cook said some of the additional attention is because Jordan Larson, one of the most famous volleyball players in the world, is now traveling with the team as an assistant coach.
“It’s been rockstar-like,” Cook said. “It’s gone to another level.”
Orr Serves It Up
Junior Kennedi Orr has elevated herself to becoming one of the Huskers’ best servers this season.
She graded out as NU’s best server during wins against Michigan State and Penn State this past weekend. Orr served 22 times and recorded one ace and missed just one serve. She was the only server who didn’t miss against the Nittany Lions.
Even though she only has four aces, she serves tough and forces opponents to play out-of-system. Against Penn State, the junior setter served six times and scored points for NU on five trips back to the end line.
Orr rebuilt her serve earlier this year and found something that works for her. Cook said it isn’t magical, but it is effective. In addition, he said she’s finding ways to contribute where she can.
“She’s really embraced her role so she can come in and be a difference-maker,” Cook said. “When trying to build a great team and culture, whatever role you have, you’re gonna do your best and be a game-changer.”