LINCOLN — John Cook often likes to tout the state of Nebraska as the “epicenter of volleyball,” and even if you don’t agree precisely on the coach’s boast, it’s hard to dispute the center of power in the college game this season lies squarely in the Midwest.
Six of the top seven teams in Monday’s coaches poll sat in the Central time zone, with No. 1 Nebraska (16-1, 7-1 Big Ten) returning to the top spot ahead of a weekend when it will be hard to argue against Lincoln being the focal point of the sport. Hosting No. 4 Wisconsin on Friday night and No. 3 Minnesota Sunday afternoon might give the Huskers a better feel for their chances to return to the final four after playing two Big Ten rivals that also have their eyes on the national championship.
“If you’d told me we were going to be playing a final four-level weekend here in Nebraska less than a year later from Omaha, it would’ve been hard to imagine,” Cook said. “This is going to be an exciting weekend for volleyball to have three of the top four teams in the rankings here in Lincoln.”
The Devaney Center will host the only three teams to hold the No. 1 ranking this season, though the Gophers and Badgers played hot potato with the top spot the last two weeks. Two days after claiming the No. 1 ranking on Oct. 3, Minnesota (13-2, 6-2) lost in five sets at No. 9 Penn State, which leads the conference race at 8-0.
That cleared the way for Wisconsin to grab the top ranking for the first time in school history last week, though it became a short stay when Minnesota dominated the Badgers in a sweep on Wednesday in which the Gophers hit .323.
The impressive showing would have given Minnesota a strong claim to move back to No. 1, except the Gophers were upset in five sets at No. 14 Michigan State on Saturday.
“I think this weekend will determine a lot who will have a shot to win the Big Ten Conference,” Cook said. “So, it’s a big weekend for that. Also, for seeding for the (NCAA tournament) regionals, there’s a lot of implications for that, or could be.”
Cook said the Huskers have to be better prepared mentally for the marquee weekend than they were last season when they prepared to host Wisconsin and Minnesota under similar circumstances on the final weekend of October.
The coach said Monday the team gave into distractions during this week last year, perhaps caused by an influx of visiting family and the ceremony around NU’s “Weekend of Champions” where it honored the 1995 NCAA title team.
Whatever the causes, the Huskers were a step slow and were exploited by two opponents that may be even better this season. Nebraska dropped its closest match of the year against Minnesota, with three of the four sets decided by two points. Two days later, the Huskers hit a season-low .133 and were blocked 15 times in a four-set loss to Wisconsin.
Similar circumstances surround this week. Nebraska again will celebrate a “Weekend of Champions,” featuring the reunion of three past final four teams, including the 2006 NCAA champions. With family in town for the weekend matches, the Huskers might again feel tugs at their focus.
But those losses last October flipped the switch that led to Nebraska’s title run. Since losing to the Badgers and Gophers, NU is 32-1 with a 14-1 record against ranked opponents. The Huskers now are used to playing high-pressure matches under bright lights, Cook said, and this weekend provides two more chances to see how they handle center stage.
“I think our players, they like big matches, and I think they’re used to it,” he said. “So I think it brings out the best in them. They’ll have a little more bounce in their step for this weekend, I think.
“For our team, this is something to prove. We’ve got something to prove this weekend.”
Rolfzen earns Big Ten award
After leading the Huskers in kills in both wins this weekend, senior opposite hitter Kadie Rolfzen became the first NU player to earn the Big Ten’s player of the week award this season.
The All-American from Papillion-La Vista South had a season-high 21 kills on .413 hitting to lead Nebraska to a four-set win at No. 19 Ohio State on Friday. She added 11 digs for the 44th double-double of her career.
Rolfzen then scored nine kills without an error to hit .643 in NU’s sweep of Maryland on Sunday.
She leads the Huskers at 3.40 kills per set, and her .342 attack percentage is the highest of the team’s five starting attackers.
Nebraska back to No. 1
With No. 3 Minnesota and No. 4 Wisconsin each suffering a loss last week, Nebraska regained the top spot in Monday’s Top 25 coaches poll, which again features nine Big Ten teams.
The Huskers, who were a unanimous No. 1 throughout September, got 62 of 64 first-place votes. No. 2 Texas and No. 9 Penn State each snagged one.
The rest of the top 10 are No. 5 San Diego, No. 6 Kansas, No. 7 Washington, No. 8 North Carolina and No. 10 Florida.
Minnesota at Nebraska
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Devaney Center, Lincoln
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM