By Lincoln Arneal
It doesn’t get any bigger than this – No. 1 vs. No. 2.
The irresistible force of Nebraska’s young talent and charisma versus the immovable object of Wisconsin’s physicality and power.
Volleyball’s Game of the Century.
The top-ranked Badgers will take on the No. 2 Huskers Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Devaney Center with the match shown on BTN.
The hype has been building for this match since the schedules were released in June. Both teams have held up their end by winning all 18 matches they’ve played this season.
The meeting is the latest between two undefeated top-ranked teams since the 1998 NCAA Championship when Long Beach State defeated Penn State in five sets. It’s the first time two top-ranked teams have played since No. 1 Nebraska hosted No. 2 Stanford in 2019.
This could be the most significant regular season match ever in the sport given all the attention volleyball has received this year.
Someone forgot to tell John Cook. The only difference the Nebraska coach said he’s noticed this week was the increased ticket requests he’s received.
“It’s great for volleyball, but we’re used to playing these matches,” Cook said. “This is where you want to be. You want to be playing these types of matches. So for us, it’s business as usual. So I don’t really feel like it’s any different.”
The players are also trying not to get caught up in the buzz around the game.
Lexi Rodriguez said she hadn’t seen much extra chatter about the match except for a little bit on Twitter and didn’t know that standing-room-only tickets were going for more than $200. She said the Wisconsin match always carries extra importance.
“I feel like that’s how it is every year, no matter what the rankings are,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, we know it’s gonna be a good match.”
During practice, NU spent the first part of the week focusing on Wednesday’s opponent, Northwestern, who they swept. Thursday was spent working on its side of the net before starting prep work on the Badgers Friday.
“We’re just playing volleyball another day. We’re not hyping it up too much. We’re not putting too much pressure around it,” junior Merritt Beason said. “We’re just playing Nebraska volleyball for the next game, and it happens to be Wisconsin.”
The Huskers won’t know what to expect from Wisconsin until shortly before the match. The Badgers have run a two-setter system with six attackers for most of the season. However, setter MJ Hammill and opposite Devyn Robinson have missed the last two matches with injuries. Both suited up on Wednesday against Ohio State, but neither entered the match.
Cook said his team is prepared for either offensive system and will adjust based on the starting lineups.
“I don’t really know all their details and who knows what they’re doing and who will play so we just got to be ready,” he said. “We are focused on our side of the net. I mean, that’s key for us. We can’t get caught up in everything going on.”
Meanwhile, Nebraska will be without Lindsay Krause. The junior outside hitter hurt her ankle during practice on Tuesday and was wearing a walking boot and using crutches during Wednesday’s match.
On his weekly radio show, Cook said he feels sick for Krause because she will not practice for a while. In her place, junior Ally Batenhorst will get the start.
“Ally’s had some huge matches for us and, very easily, could have been starting for us the whole year,” Cook said. “Those guys have been going back and forth. We’ve been saying we’ve got a team, whether you’re starting or you’re ready to come in, you may be a game-changer either way so you’ve got a big role on this team.”
Recent history has not been kind to the Huskers. Wisconsin has dominated the series, winning the last 10 meetings dating back to 2017. The Huskers have won just seven sets during that span.
However, this is a new team with most key contributors having never played the Badgers. Beason also was part of the Florida team that defeated Wisconsin last year in front of a then-record regular season crowd of 16,833 fans in the Kohl Center.
She said the key to winning that match was to play like an underdog and move on from points quickly. Wisconsin will make plays, get kills, stuff attacks and score on aces, but how the Huskers regroup and focus on the next play is essential.
“We went in there knowing that we had nothing to lose and we were like, ‘We’re the team that’s not supposed to win,’” Beason said. “So we’re going to give it our all, and we’re going to try and do everything to our best ability. And at the end of the day, if we fail, we fail. But we’re going to go in there and give it our best shot.”
Cook, however, didn’t buy that Beason’s experience on a different team a year ago would help NU much this week.
“The game has no memory,” he said.
Beason said the Huskers can also take lessons from the Memorial Stadium match to help prepare for the Badgers in a big game atmosphere. She said that dealing with a little extra hype or pressure is more manageable once you’ve played in front of 92,003 fans in a football stadium.
“We had to make sure that we were focused on the match, no matter what the media was doing, no matter who was watching or what was going on,” she said. “That prepared us and gave us a test run early in the season of how we were going to handle all of that and all the outside noise. I say we’ve been there and we’ve handled that one so we’re prepared for it.”