LINCOLN — The intermission between the second and third sets of a college volleyball match is 10 minutes. For the first three or so minutes, the Nebraska coaching staff huddles outside the locker room, discussing adjustments, leaving the players to themselves.
It was no surprise after losing the first two sets to Wisconsin on Saturday that coach John Cook and his staff would make a checklist of all that had gone wrong. But inside the locker room? The players were ticking off all the things that could still go right.
“Pretty much, it was just like, ‘We’re down 0-2. We’re ranked lower. We’re at home,’ ” senior Sydney Townsend said Monday. “We had nothing to lose, and we knew Devaney was going to have our back if we came out and made a couple plays, so let’s get them going.”
It was similar to the story outside hitter Mikaela Foecke relayed Saturday night after the Huskers completed the comeback and earned their third win in nine days over an opponent ranked in the top 10.
“We might as well give it all we got,” Foecke said, “and go out swinging away, and just kind of play with a lot of confidence, almost to the point where you’re just a little bit cocky, and you’re just trying to fake it till you make it.”
Tucked inside what might sound like a bit of delusion is a growing confidence that Cook said the team has been building over the season’s first month. Since the Huskers have five wins over higher-ranked opponents, it’s clear their self-assurance is well-earned, and Monday, the Huskers (11-3, 4-0 Big Ten) were rewarded by moving up to No. 4 in the coaches’ poll.
Even in a winless opening weekend of the season, Cook said he saw his team build belief in competitive losses to Oregon and Florida that came without injured starting setter Kelly Hunter. Piling up sweeps at Penn State and at home on Friday against Minnesota — teams that were tied at No. 3 in last week’s coaches poll — built up more psychological chips.
On Saturday night, it was time for the Huskers to cash them in.
“I just think they’re showing they’ve got some emotional strength,” Cook said. “That they can dig down, and get it done, and kind of rise to the challenges. You never know until you get in it how a team is going to respond, so I’m pretty amazed at what they’ve done.”
Cook said Saturday the Huskers were “scrambling” to adjust between the different playing styles of the Badgers and Gophers. Friday night, the Huskers shut down one of the country’s quickest offenses, holding Minnesota to .183 in a sweep.
But Wisconsin’s pace was more deliberate and set choices more balanced than those of the Gophers, who live off speedy sets to the pins. The Badgers gave middle blockers Tionna Williams and Dana Rettke 54 combined swings, each finishing with 11 kills.
“It’s tough to have two game plans, and those two teams are very different,” Cook said.
This week, NU has the luxury of two full days to prepare for another top-15 opponent. Like Wisconsin, No. 14 Michigan State (11-2, 4-0) has a balanced attack with more physical pin hitters, plus a wealth of experience. Six of the Spartans’ regulars are seniors.
MSU comes to Lincoln on Wednesday night having won six in a row, including a surprising first weekend in Big Ten play when they beat Wisconsin and Minnesota on the road. Last weekend, Michigan State hit .356 over a pair of victories against Maryland and Ohio State at home.
It will be a matchup of the Big Ten’s only teams yet to lose in conference play, and with a win, the Huskers would have victories over all of their expected challengers for the conference title with eight weeks of the regular season left.
Plenty of time for some things still to go wrong. But Nebraska again showed this weekend the team knows it can capitalize even if there’s the slimmest chance of getting it right.
“I think they’ve done a really good job of handling the moment and staying point by point, and not getting too up and too down, and playing pretty consistently,” Cook said. “When you do that, you’re always going to have chances to win.”
Added prep time for Badgers
The Big Ten schedule doesn’t afford much down time, but last weekend was probably the final time the Huskers will face ranked opponents on consecutive days.
The Huskers are set to play a Friday-Saturday weekend three more times, but in all three, at most, only one opponent is ranked currently. They will play two teams ranked in this week’s poll on the final weekend of October, but they have a day off between playing at Michigan State on Oct. 27 and at Michigan on Oct. 29.
Even that one day of preparation can be helpful, Cook said. In a week when NU plays on back-to-back nights, the team usually prepares for the second opponent early in the week before turning its attention to the first match on Wednesday and Thursday.
Cook was grateful the rematch with Wisconsin in Madison comes on Wednesday, Oct. 11, when the Huskers will have had two days to focus solely on the Badgers.
“Personally, I like it,” Cook said. “I’ll feel more prepared going into that than as we did against Wisconsin (on Saturday), where it’s a tough turnaround in 24 hours to play another great team like that and not have the preparation time.”
Replay comes at critical time
Cook has been a vocal supporter of expanding use of the video challenge review system, and the Huskers came out on the winning end of two disputed calls in critical moments against Wisconsin.
The biggest came with the teams tied 21-21 in Game 4, when a linesman ruled a cross-court shot by Badgers outside hitter Lauryn Gillis hit the sideline. The Huskers on the court immediately turned to Cook en masse to urge him to challenge the call.
After review, officials confirmed the ball was wide, giving Nebraska the 22-21 lead, and the Huskers eventually won the set 25-23 to force Game 5.
Since players usually have the best look at a play, Cook said they’re often the deciding factor on when a coach uses one of three challenges in a match.
“As (TV broadcaster) Paul Sunderland said, the challenge system has made volleyball players honest now,” Cook said. “They tell the truth. They have to.”
Huskers host prospects
Nebraska used the high-profile weekend to host a number of recruits, including one of the nation’s most coveted prospects for the class of 2020, outside hitter Taylor Landfair of Plainfield, Illinois.
The 6-foot-4 high school sophomore plays for the Chicago powerhouse Sports Performance club program that produced current Husker Annika Albrecht and former NU players Kelsey Robinson and Meghan Haggerty.
NU’s lone 2020 commit, Madi Endsley, also visited last weekend. The 6-3 outside hitter from Temecula, California, is averaging 4.7 kills per set as a sophomore for her Temecula Valley High School team according to MaxPreps.com.
Michigan State at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Devaney Center
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM