By Lincoln Arneal
As the regular season winds down, Nebraska coach John Cook isn’t falling into a nostalgic mode.
While he said the season has gone quickly, he’s still looking forward to the final two weeks of Big Ten matches. Top-ranked and 25-0 Nebraska is trying to stay focused on getting better each day and preparing for each match ahead of them.
Because the Huskers don’t have seniors on their roster, the last regular season home match on Friday against Michigan won’t have any extra festivities to honor players wrapping up their careers.
Fine by Cook.
“There is no senior night, so that’s really weird,” he said. “I’m glad because senior night can be a big distraction because of everything that goes on with it.”
This will be the second time in recent history the Huskers won’t have a senior day celebration. The 2019 team also had no players exhausting their eligibility.
Instead of honoring senior players, Cook said he filmed a video with HuskerVision to thank the fans for the season.
“I suggested we just thank the senior citizens,” he joked. “Seriously, we should do a video with that.”
Following Wisconsin’s loss at Penn State on Saturday, NU sits two games in front of the Badgers in the Big Ten standings with four matches remaining. With a pair of wins this week, Nebraska could clinch a share of its first Big Ten title since 2017.
Even though one of the Huskers’ season-long goals is within reach, they don’t plan to talk about a conference championship as motivation or use it to focus on the task at hand.
“We’re focused on how to get better today. That’s what our focus is today, and we aren’t worried about any of that stuff,” Cook said. “This is Week 9. How are we going to widen the gap? That’s what we’ll try to work on. We got lots of stuff we could work on. I need a four-hour practice today.”
Back Row Success
Nebraska enters the last two weeks of the season with one of the best offenses in the country. The Huskers rank in the top two in the Big Ten and top 13 nationally in hitting percentage, kills per set and assists per set.
Most of that can be attributed to outstanding individual play, but NU has also emphasized attacking from the back row. Last season, Madi Kubik was the main threat from the back row, while defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles also got a few attempts per match.
This year, junior opposite Merritt Beason and freshman outside hitter Harper Murray are leading a rejuvenated attack from behind the 10-foot line.
“The numbers are off the charts,” Cook said. “The highest they’ve ever been. … It’s been a big part of our offense. We’ve worked hard on it and we’re getting great results.”
He compared the two to Sarah Pavan and said they were better than Mikaela Foecke.
Chad Gordon of VolleyDork.com rates Nebraska as the second-best back-row attacking team in the country. According to his breakdown, the Huskers are hitting .256 from the front row and .336 when setting off the net, which they do 10 percent of the time.
Cook said it’s a challenging part of the offense to master, but the key is to have a good setter who knows when to go to the back row and create one-on-one matchups or a block they can hit around.
When Gordon ran the numbers in mid-October, Murray ranked as the best back-row attacker in the nation and Beason was No. 11.
Cook said Beason uses the block well when she is swinging off the net and finds gaps to create openings.
“She moves it, and she flies,” he said. “Some of those attacks are pretty impressive.”
Choboy is No. 1
The play of Laney Choboy diving into the stands to save a ball against Illinois on Sunday wowed her teammates, delighted the Devaney Center crowd and garnered national attention.
The highlight of the rally, which ended with a block by Murray and Bekka Allick, was the No. 1 play on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Sunday night – the same day that featured a full slate of NFL games.
Cook said he thought Larry Punteney and Kathi Wieskamp made a great call on Nebraska Public Media to capture the moment. The tweet the Nebraska Volleyball account sent out had been viewed more than 390,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon.
“That was really cool,” he said. “I’ve said it all year – Lainey at times is our MVP. The biggest thing she brings is the mindset and attitude. How hard we’re going to play, we’re going to go for every ball, and we’re never going to quit. She instills that in our team, and it’s a big piece of our team.”
Jackson Joins Award Club
Andi Jackson was named co-freshman of the week by the Big Ten on Monday, along with Chloe Chicoine of Purdue.
Jackson recorded 17 kills at a .714 clip and added nine blocks in wins over Northwestern and Illinois. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker is the third Husker player to win the freshman award, joining Murray, who has won it three times, and setter Bergen Reilly, a two-time recipient.
Six Nebraska players have received weekly awards from the Big Ten, which ties the 2013 team for the most in program history. Beason was named player of the week three times and junior outside hitter Lindsay Krause earned the honor once. Junior libero Lexi Rodrigeuz won the defensive player of the week award once, while Reilly has been named setter of the week four times.