With more tests coming, Huskers pass first with perseverance in rugged Big Ten

LINCOLN — With nine teams ranked in this week’s top 25 poll, the Big Ten Conference is bound to test the limits of a team’s ability to handle adversity over 10 weeks.

Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook said Monday he was pleased with the way the top-ranked Huskers passed the first of those conference challenges, rallying from losing the first two sets in Saturday night’s five-set win at Michigan State to run their winning streak to 27 matches.

“Pretty much, I think we play a ranked team every week (in the Big Ten),” Cook said. “We’re going to be in a lot of tough matches, so it was good for them to find a way to win that match.”

It seems that one of the biggest lessons from Saturday’s comeback was patience in the game plan. Nebraska (11-0, 2-0 Big Ten) lost the first set despite a gaudy .481 hitting percentage when the Spartans hit .447 themselves and added three aces.

In Game 2, Michigan State hit .312 with three more aces to build a 23-16 lead before eventually holding off a late rally to win 25-23.

Cook said Monday he told the team during the intermission that coming back wasn’t going to be a matter of changing the game plan but they needed to clean up a sloppy serve receive and ask the block and defense to bring the Spartans’ hitters back to earth.

“We weren’t going to adjust,” Cook said. “We weren’t going to rotate or anything like that. We liked our matchups. We liked everything that we were doing, and we were going to stay with it.”

“I think we were really tense the first two sets. Everything was really close all the time,” middle blocker Amber Rolfzen said. “After the intermission we were kind of, ‘All right, let’s play Husker volleyball. Let’s calm down a little bit, point by point.’ I think we just realized if you just take it one play at a time it will eventually come together.”

It took a little while into Game 3 to have that faith rewarded. NU trailed 13-8 before a 3-0 run started Nebraska’s rally. The Huskers would string together three straight points three more times in the third set, with the final run clinching a 25-20 win.

The third set was pivotal, Cook said, in putting doubt into Michigan State and swinging the match’s momentum.

“When teams play with no fear, it’s easy,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden when they’ve got something to lose, it changes a little bit. They started making a few more errors, and we started putting pressure on them. That’s what got us back in the match.”

After the Huskers kept up the pressure with a blowout win in the fourth set, there was one final chance for doubt in Game 5. When outside hitter Mikaela Foecke got blocked to put Michigan State up 12-10, Cook called his final timeout with NU three points away from its first loss since last October.

According to Rolfzen, it was setter Kelly Hunter who spoke up in the huddle. We’ve been here before, the team captain reminded everyone, and she proceeded to paint a picture of one final comeback to clinch a win in the toughest match of the season.

“Kelly goes, ‘Everyone sit there and believe. Think to yourself we’re going to win this match and believe that we’re going to win it,’ ” Rolfzen said. “She makes sure we’re focused, we’re positive and that we know that we can do it.

“She knows that we all kind of look to her when things get rough.”

Nebraska would win six of the match’s final eight rallies with Hunter and Rolfzen teaming up for a block on match point. It sealed an undefeated weekend on the first of seven straight weeks that the Huskers will play at least one currently ranked opponent.

“They had to play really hard and well to win. That’s the lesson,” Cook said. “It’s the Big Ten. You’re going to have to play great and make some plays, which is what we did and took it away from Michigan State.”

The Huskers will play their third straight road match against a ranked opponent on Wednesday at No. 24 Illinois (9-4, 2-0).

Hunter earns setter of the week honors

Monday, the Big Ten named Hunter the league’s setter of the week after the Papillion-La Vista South graduate averaged 10.62 assists per set in the wins over Michigan and Michigan State.

Hunter had double-doubles in both matches with 32 assists and 10 digs against the Wolverines and a season-high 53 assists to go with 10 digs against the Spartans.

Hunter’s four double-doubles leads Nebraska this season.

Boender a boost off the bench

Looking for a spark Saturday while in danger of getting swept at Michigan State, Nebraska turned to the bench for a much-needed boost from sophomore outside hitter Olivia Boender.

Boender, from Waverly, Nebraska, delivered with eight kills on 17 attacks over the final two-and-a-half sets.

“She brings a lot of energy, first of all, because that’s her personality,” Cook said. “Second of all, she got a couple of really big kills for us. I was impressed with how hard she swung and how good of kills those were.”

Earlier this season, Boender had a career-high 16 kills against Montana State, and in practice she has proven to be one of the hardest-hitting Huskers. But the 6-foot-3 sophomore is still developing consistency and confidence, Cook said.

Amber Rolfzen believes her teammate’s Game 5 performance should help with the latter. Boender delivered three kills in the final set, including one that tied it 14-14 when the Spartans held a match point.

“I think we just all kind of let her know, ‘We believe in you. We know you can get the job done whether you think so or not,’ ” Rolfzen said. “I think that helps her mentally, just being able to come off the bench like she did against Michigan State.”