LINCOLN — Nebraska passed the test of preparing for three teams by sweeping through the Ameritas Players Challenge without dropping a set last weekend.
This week brings a challenge at the opposite end of the spectrum, coach John Cook said Monday. The No. 12 Huskers (3-2) will host No. 11 UCLA (5-0) for matches on Friday and Saturday at the Devaney Center, giving the team a week to get ready for one team but making it important to have a pocketful of adjustments ready to deploy in the 23 hours between matches.
“I equate it to the NBA Finals,” Cook said. “Round 1, Round 2, here we go. You’re playing the same team.
“It will be interesting to see from Night 1 to Night 2 making adjustments and trying to have two great efforts. From a coaching perspective I think it’s really cool. I hope the fans will be fired up.”
You have to go back to 2004 to find the last time Nebraska played a nonconference opponent on consecutive dates. That season, the Huskers swept Notre Dame in the season opener, then won in five sets the following day. NU also played double-headers at Pacific in 1991 and hosted Texas on consecutive days late in the 1988 regular season.
Cook didn’t start out looking to host the Bruins for two straight matches. He initially conceived of having UCLA as one of two opponents in a three-team tournament, but after a few promising leads fell through, the Huskers were left without a third team willing to come to Lincoln despite offering a $10,000 guarantee and paying for a team hotel.
“We pay the most to come here, but nobody wanted to,” Cook said. “So finally, (to) Mike Sealy, the (UCLA) coach, I just said, ‘Hey, what if we just played back to back?’ And he goes, ‘Great.’ ”
The Huskers lead the all-time series between the schools 10-5 and hold a 6-2 record in Cook’s tenure as coach. NU won the most recent meeting in 2012, beating the preseason No. 1 Bruins in five sets at the NU Coliseum.
“We’ve had some great matches with them so it will be great competition,” Cook said.
Learning from two-setter offense
Nebraska won all three matches in the Ameritas Players Challenge, despite using a two-setter offense the team is not accustomed to playing. Cook said it provided plenty of learning moments.
The system requires Nebraska to use most of the 16 substitutions a team is allowed in each set to shuffle between setters Kelly Hunter and Hunter Atherton and swap opposite hitters Jazz Sweet and Anezka Szabo every three rotations.
It meant the Huskers had to stick with using outside hitters Mikaela Foecke and Annika Albrecht as primary passers in the back row. Albrecht, a senior, has been a main passer for four seasons, but it’s a relatively new role for the junior Foecke, and NU’s opponents, particularly St. Mary’s on Saturday, knew it.
The Gaels jumped out to early leads in the first two sets when the Huskers struggled to control the serving of setter Alexsa Parker and get in system on offense.
After the Huskers rallied from a 24-21 deficit to win Game 1, Cook considered switching his starting rotation for the next set but wanted to give the team a chance to improve. St. Mary’s quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Parker’s serve in Game 2.
“I told them at the end of Game 1, this is exactly what I told the team, ‘We should rotate, but we have to learn to side out in this rotation. Mikaela, you’re going to have to learn how to pass the ball,’ ” Cook said.
The Huskers started the third set in Rotation 2, which put Albrecht in the back row, instead of their customary start in Rotation 1. Nebraska never trailed in Game 3, winning 25-18.
Cook, who prefers to play a one-setter offense with Hunter, said the system NU uses this weekend would likely depend on Hunter’s recovery from a preseason injury. The All-American from Papillion-La Vista South saw her first action of the season in the Ameritas Players Challenge after missing the first two matches.
“Take it up another notch in practice, and we’ll see how she does,” Cook said. “Each week, we’re upping it. I thought she got a little sloppy in the St. Mary’s match. I think she was feeling it a little bit.”
Competition good for freshmen
The 6-2 system allowed Nebraska to give ample playing time to Sweet and Szabo; the 6-foot-3, left-handed freshmen are locked in a competition for the starting outside hitter job.
Sweet, who has started all five matches this year, leads the team with a .343 attack percentage and had six kills on eight swings Friday against Oral Roberts.
Szabo, who subs into the front row when Atherton comes in to set, had her best match on Saturday against St. Mary’s with 10 kills on .400 hitting.
Cook said Sweet won the starting nod by a razor-thin margin in preseason practices, but the competition is by no means over.
“I had no idea how (Sweet) would do because they’re so up and down in practice, but she’s showing good glimpses,” Cook said. “So is Anezka. It’s going to be a great battle. Let those guys battle it out every day. I love it.”
The competition could heat up, Cook said, when the Huskers eventually shift back to a 5-1 system when Hunter is healthy. The 5-1 means NU won’t rotate opposites every three rotations, using more of its substitutes on defensive and serving specialists.
“The greatest motivator is butt on the bench,” Cook said. “One of them is going to be on the bench, so let them battle it out. I think that’s what brings out the best in people, is competition. They know they have to be good every day to play.”
NU-Creighton series to resume
It hasn’t gone unnoticed to Cook that fans in the state are disappointed Nebraska and Creighton are not scheduled to play in a year both are ranked in the top 15.
Cook said the teams’ open scheduling dates didn’t match up to resume the in-state rivalry this season, but the teams have already agreed to meet in September 2018 at the CenturyLink Center. The Huskers and Bluejays have played three times before at the CenturyLink Center, in 2006, 2008 and 2015, with NU winning each year.
“Every time, we’ve gotten 10,000, 8,000 (fans),” Cook said, “so it makes sense to play there.”
The Huskers will make one trip to Omaha this season, playing in UNO’s Omaha Challenge at Baxter Arena on September 15 and 16 against Northern Iowa, Kansas State and UNO.
Cook said he wanted Hunter to play another match in Omaha during her senior season and found the opportunity when talking to UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts, who was looking for a volleyball showcase event in the two-year-old facility.
Nebraska will have another open date in 2019 following the Huskers’ four-year obligation in the VERT Challenge, which NU will host next season. Cook said the Huskers also will resume their series soon with Iowa State, coached by former Nebraska setter Christy Johnson-Lynch. NU and ISU played a home-and-home in 2015-16 but aren’t scheduled to play this year.
“We’ve got those teams right here, so we might as well play them, and we don’t have to fly all over the place to play good teams,” Cook said. “Those are good RPI teams, so it makes sense.”