In Big Ten title chase, the Huskers’ last hurdle is the toughest

In Big Ten title chase, the Huskers’ last hurdle is the toughest
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — An anecdote Amber Rolfzen relayed during the Nebraska volleyball team’s media day in August seems especially relevant now.

The senior middle blocker told reporters about how, in order to fulfill their 2016 motto of “Dream Bigger,” the Huskers had to finish offseason conditioning by working harder. Up and down the stairs at the Devaney Center, the team ran while wearing weighted vests — sweating under the shadow of the 2011 Big Ten championship banner that marks the team’s most recent conference title.

Three months later, No. 1 Nebraska (26-1, 17-1 Big Ten) enters the final week of the regular season controlling its fate to give that 2011 banner some company. But just as the final set of stairs was the hardest, run on quivering legs with searing lungs, the Huskers’ final push to the title may contain the season’s most imposing challenge.

Nebraska will take its 14-match winning streak to Minneapolis on Wednesday to face No. 2 Minnesota (23-4, 15-3) at the Sports Pavilion, where the Gophers haven’t lost all season. Win that, and NU at worst clinches a share of the Big Ten title with a chance to claim it outright by beating No. 18 Michigan in the season finale on Saturday at the Devaney Center. Both matches will air live on News Channel Nebraska, 1600 AM & 105.5 FM.

The other match that factors into the league title picture is also Saturday night in Minneapolis when the Gophers host No. 3 Wisconsin.

“It sets up this week to be a big week,” Nebraska coach John Cook said on Monday. “That’s what you want coming down the stretch is to be in a position to have some meaningful matches. These are about as meaningful as they get.”

Not only will this week settle the Big Ten championship, but it will clear up the national seeds for the NCAA tournament when the bracket is released Sunday night. Wisconsin is the top-ranked team in the RPI, to which the selection committee has shown strong deference in past seedings. Texas, which has lost to both Nebraska and Wisconsin this season, is No. 2 in the RPI, followed by No. 3 Nebraska and No. 4 Minnesota.

This year, higher-seeded teams will have the opportunity to host tournament matches through the regional finals, which means the Huskers might not have to leave the Devaney Center en route to the final four in Columbus, Ohio. Will the selection committee give Big Ten teams three of the top four national seeds? Cook would rather Nebraska take care of business against its final two opponents and let the big picture focus itself.

“We pride ourselves on being consistent, preparing the same, treating each match the same, and I think that gives us the opportunity to be really consistent throughout this conference,” Cook said. “That’s kind of our mantra that we go by, and these guys have bought into it.”

In Minnesota, Nebraska sees an opponent similar to itself. The Gophers put five talented hitters on the floor and spread the offense with setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who has had an excellent sophomore season running one the country’s fastest offenses. In Big Ten matches, Minnesota is hitting a league-best .296.

“It’s a very tough system to be good on,” Cook said of defending the Gophers. “The key is you don’t chase the last play and you stay disciplined. If they bounce a ball on you, you don’t deviate from the game plan.”

In the teams’ first meeting this year, a five-setter won by the Huskers in Lincoln on Oct. 23, Nebraska held its own defensively. NU came up with 17 blocks, led by 10 from middle blocker Briana Holman, and limited the Gophers to .159 hitting.

Minnesota’s outside hitters, Sarah Wilhite and Alexis Hart, combined for 35 kills, but the Huskers used tough serving and a school-record 35 digs from Justine Wong-Orantes to keep the Gophers from scoring with their accustomed efficiency.

To win in Minneapolis, and get one hand on the Big Ten trophy, the Huskers need another standout defensive effort. Cook said in particular to watch how Nebraska’s left sides — Mikaela Foecke and Andie Malloy — fare in defending the Gophers’ slide play, which will match them up with a rotation of Minnesota’s three middle blockers led by All-American senior Hannah Tapp, who hit .129 against Nebraska in October.

“They’ve got to be really good,” Cook said. “They’ve got to be good one-on-one. Then our floor defense has to be really good around them.”

Ex-Husker’s team finishes as runner-up in Texas

Former Husker Kori Cooper continues to be a rising star in the Texas high school coaching ranks after leading Cedar Park to a Class 5A state runner-up finish Saturday.

Cedar Park was in search of its first state championship in Cooper’s first season at the school, but was beaten by Cooper’s high school alma mater, Amarillo, which won its 10th state championship by beating Cedar Park 25-13, 25-19, 14-25, 25-18. Cooper also had been an assistant coach at Amarillo.

Cedar Park’s 42-11 record this year was the best mark in school history.

Cooper captained the 2009 Nebraska team and was a two-time first-team All-Big 12 middle blocker. Prior to coaching Cedar Park, she amassed a 66-31 record in two seasons at Grapevine High School, which included an undefeated 24-0 mark in District 6-5A with two district titles.

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