Big Ten title would be new part of bigger Husker goals

LINCOLN — During last year’s NCAA championship season, the Nebraska volleyball team wore its big dreams in plain sight. The Huskers practiced in T-shirts that read “Destination: Omaha,” the site of the final four.

The grandiose goals are there again this season. Coach John Cook unveiled the team’s “Dream Bigger” mantra at the start of fall practice. But in addition to winning back-to-back national titles for the first time in program history, No. 1 Nebraska (9-0) opens Big Ten play this weekend eyeing another piece of unfinished business.

NU’s last — and only — Big Ten title came in 2011, before any current Husker was on the team. Adding a conference championship is the lone piece of hardware missing for this group of players. But, setter Kelly Hunter said, instead of looking at the big picture, winning the Big Ten will require a smaller, more granular focus.

“We’re not necessarily worried about going back-to-back right now,” Hunter said. “We’re worried about winning each point. Not even each game, each point. And that will translate into winning sets, into winning games, into winning the Big Ten.”

The first steps toward that goal will come away from home, starting with Friday’s 6 p.m. match at No. 22 Michigan (11-1) followed by a 6 p.m. meeting Saturday with Michigan State (11-1).

Hunter, a junior from Papillion-La Vista South and the team’s lone captain, steers Nebraska’s point-by-point focus. The challenge for the team coming into the year was how to fit two newcomers into the starting lineup who both had been the focal point of their previous teams.

But Nebraska’s offensive balance is at least an early sign that Hunter is succeeding. Going into this weekend’s Big Ten opener, NU’s five starting attackers average between 3.2 and 1.9 kills per set. Each is hitting at least .286.

“Our balance is incredible, how balanced we are,” Cook said. “I don’t even talk to her about that. It’s just a natural feel.”

“We have the weapons at all positions, so we’d be stupid not to use all of them,” said Kadie Rolfzen, NU’s All-America opposite hitter. “I just think that’s one thing we’re really good at this year, is anybody can kill a ball from anywhere.”

The balance has tangible and intangible benefits. Keeping opposing blockers guessing leads to NU hitters attacking against more efficient one-on-one matchups. After last weekend’s Ameritas Players Challenge, the Huskers moved up to No. 1 in the country with a .349 team attack percentage.

It also tamps down the possibility of any player piping up that they think they should be getting more swings, threatening a chemistry that fueled last year’s title run.

“On any team,” Hunter said, “if someone is the star player, or whatever, people naturally just kind of are ‘Oh, whatever. Why is it not me?’ We definitely don’t have any egos or anything.”

That chemistry may get tested during the tumultuous 10-week run through the Big Ten. But if it does, Hunter knows to bring everything back to basics.

The building blocks of Nebraska’s bigger dreams of a Big Ten title and another NCAA championship are the hundreds of points played between now and December, with the most important point being the next one.

She’s seen something special be built that way before.

“We know how to do that now,” Hunter said. “We’ve been through it, we know what we’re doing. We know what it takes to get there, and so that’s what we’re going to work on, every little thing it takes to get there.”