Maturing newcomers, battles through adversity key to Nebraska volleyball’s recent resurgence

LINCOLN — If there was a Scott Frost Fan Club among the other coaches in the Nebraska athletic department, you’d be hard pressed to find a more enthusiastic candidate for its president than John Cook. The Husker volleyball coach often peppers comments about his team with football analogies, and has crafted his program on the principles that any defensive coordinator would envy.

Monday, Cook found another analog — the programs’ dueling late-season resurgences as newcomers mature and early adversity birthed toughness down the stretch. After dropping five of seven matches to end October, No. 6 Nebraska (22-6, 13-5 Big Ten) enters the final week of the regular season 6-0 in November with more room to grow as the postseason awaits.

“To me, it’s a very similar deal to football,” Cook said Monday. “They started off tough, but just stayed with it day by day. We’re continuing to get better. I think we just beat three ranked teams in two weeks. Again, I’m encouraged by it. I told you guys it’s a work in progress, and it has been, and we’re continuing to improve, which is hard to do this time of year.”

Cook said he departs with most of his peers in believing development can still happen late in the season. With seven newcomers on this year’s team, he said at the beginning of the season the Huskers would take awhile to find their identity. He’s often repeated that the team is “a work in progress.”

But the development of two players in particular is leading the Huskers out of their transitional form. Monday, Cook quickly identified freshman setter Nicklin Hames as the youngster who has shown the most growth in recent weeks.

The rookie from Knoxville, Tennessee, who came to Nebraska as the nation’s top-ranked setter in the class of 2018 had her string of 13 straight double-doubles end in Saturday’s sweep of Indiana, but set NU to a .388 hitting percentage. Her deliveries to Nebraska’s outside hitters seem improved in November, and perhaps most impressive has been her development setting NU’s middle attack.

Middle blockers Lauren Stivrins and Callie Schwarzenbach combined for 35 kills on .351 hitting last weekend, keeping opposing blockers from ganging up on outside hitters Mikaela Foecke and Lexi Sun.

“Nicklin’s starting to do some really good things,” Cook said. “As I tell her, she’s still a snot-nosed little freshman, but she’s starting to do some good things.”

So is Sun. The Texas transfer is rounding closer to the form Husker fans hoped to see from the former national high school player of the year. Sun is averaging 3.32 kills per set in six November matches, but more impressive to Cook is Sun’s continued commitment to developing the nonattacking parts of her game.

Sun’s talent, Cook said, made it a low-risk proposition to have her join the Huskers this summer. But transfers often have to go an extra mile to prove to their new teammates and coaches that they share a team’s goals. A player with Sun’s abilities could be tempted to cruise on their hitting talent, Cook said, but Sun has developed into one of the team’s better servers and has improved her defensive skills in the back row. She had a team-high 16 digs against Indiana.

“My whole thing with her is are we working on the things to get better every day that she needs to work on to be a six-rotation player?” Cook said.

“She’s a very hard worker, extremely hard. And I had no idea before she got here on that. But, she’s a very hard worker.”

Three seniors to be honored

Nebraska will honor seniors Foecke, Kenzie Maloney and Brooke Smith following Saturday’s regular-season finale against Maryland.

Cook was effusive Monday in his praise for Smith, who transferred back to NU from Kansas State and has made a bigger impact on this year’s team than her 10 appearances as a reserve might suggest.

“If we could just mold a total team player that it’s about the team first, and she’s going to give everything that she has every day, whether she plays or whether she doesn’t play,” Cook said. “If we could create somebody like that, if we gave a job description, she would fit it perfectly.”

Cook said Smith provides an emotional complement to Maloney and Foecke, the team’s two captains. His best teams have had upperclassmen, like former Husker Sydney Townsend on last year’s team, who played what he called the “Team Mom.” Selfless, positive, and quick to notice who needs an encouraging word.

“When she gets her chance, she’s going for it,” Cook said. “I can’t think of one day this year that I thought Brooke’s down, wasn’t into it, wasn’t giving everything that she had. She makes everybody around her better. She makes all those younger players feel great.”

Huskers stay at No. 6, Jays No. 9

With the NCAA tournament brackets coming out Sunday, Nebraska remained No. 6 in the final regular-season coaches poll with Creighton remaining No. 9.

But the disparity between the coaches poll and the NCAA RPI makes it hard to guess where the Huskers and Bluejays could be seeded in the postseason. NU is No. 11 in the RPI while Creighton is No. 16. Both teams would seem to be in line to host first and second round matches.

Cook said he couldn’t guess what regional Nebraska might be placed in, but said he hoped the selection committee wouldn’t stack too many Big Ten teams in one regional during the conference’s standout season. For the second straight week, Big Ten clubs held six of the top 12 spots in the coaches poll.

“This is as tough a conference this year as I’ve ever seen,” Cook said. “There have been other years I think it’s been equal to this, but the amount of good teams in this conference this year, and the level of volleyball that’s been played is amazing. You just hope they make it fair and give every Big Ten team a chance when they get in the tournament and don’t have to go beat another Big Ten team.”

Opponent Watch

The Huskers’ final two regular season opponents this week will both finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings, but in this league, even the guppies have some teeth.

Ohio State will come to Lincoln on Friday having lost 10 straight matches, but the Buckeyes put a scare into league champs Minnesota, losing 15-11 in the fifth set.

OSU will have a bit of a different look than when the Huskers won 3-1 in Columbus in October. Last weekend, the Buckeyes turned the setting duties over to senior Olivia Dailey, who missed the first match against NU with an injury and had split time in a 6-2 recently with sophomore Becca Mauer.

Ohio State coach Geoff Carlston looks to have turned the 5-foot-9 Mauer into an attacker. She had 13 kills against Minnesota.Maryland seemed destined for the Big Ten basement after half its roster transferred in the offseason following Coach Steve Aird’s departure for Indiana. But 32-year-old coach Adam Hughes has guided the Terrapins to eight conference wins, the program’s most ever.

“He’s done a great job,” Cook said. “I think he deserves to be considered for coach of the year.”While seven of those Big Ten victories have come against teams in the bottom half of the league table, Maryland’s 3-0 sweep of No. 15 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Nov. 7 showed the Terps have potential. A big part of that promise comes from the one Maryland star who stuck around. Sophomore outside hitter Erika Pritchard leads the Big Ten in kills per set (4.29) and has six matches this year with at least 20 kills.

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