By Randy York
Check Melanie Keil in the above photo. The 6-foot Nebraska volleyball middle blocker from Berlin, Germany, is celebrating an emotional moment in the Huskers’ five-set loss to No. 2-ranked Texas at the Devaney Center two weekends ago. Nebraska’s only other losses this season are to unbeaten No. 1 Stanford and unbeaten No. 5 Florida State.
After losing to three of the nation’s top five ranked teams, the bad news is that Nebraska now hosts No. 3-ranked Penn State on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Devaney Center. The good news is the Huskers are “fired up” and even “hyped up” about the challenge, Coach John Cook said Monday in his weekly presser. The best news is that Keil, who has worked her way into Nebraska’s starting lineup, told a small group of writers Monday that the Huskers have matured and gained considerable confidence over the last month. “We’re pumped up (about playing Penn State) because we know we can beat this team,” she said. “We’re excited, especially after Texas. We’re playing at a consistent level and think we’re capable of (winning) another set.”
Cook does not back down from his team’s newfound confidence and the way the Huskers are embracing the weekend challenge of hosting Penn State on Friday night and entertaining Ohio State at 5 p.m. Saturday. “We’ve made adjustments, and things are encouraging,” Cook said. “We’re at a much greater comfort level than we were, but this will be a whole different level than Iowa (Nebraska swept the Hawkeyes twice last week – once in Lincoln and last Saturday night in Iowa City). They (the Nittany Lions) make you perform at a higher level and they make you pay for mistakes. This weekend will be a great challenge for us. Penn State is a great team. They have all the pieces, and they’ve set the bar high.”
Keil Adapted to Coaching, Connected with Pollmiller
Cook cautions that the Big Ten, which has three of the nation’s top eight ranked teams and six of the top 18, is “a grind” and every team that competes in the nation’s strongest conference has to “take it one week at a time.” Keil “played a lot but didn’t get coached a lot, so she played with bad habits” in Germany before selecting Nebraska over Michigan and Illinois, according to Cook. “She’s worked really hard, connected well with (setter) Mary Pollmiller (above) and now has the opportunity to make the most of it,” he said.
At this stage, Keil will be a front-row player, but the goal is to have her play all the way around. “Last year was hard for me to adjust,” Keil said. “It was so much harder than I thought it would be. Now, I’m having fun playing. They (her teammates) trust me, and I trust them.” Trust and culture have enabled Keil to improve dramatically. “I just learned a whole different view of blocking,” she said. “We never slack off in practice. We’re always competing, always giving our best. Now, I actually have a purpose for everything I’m doing.”
Nebraska holds a 13-9 lead in the all-time series with Penn State, but since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions have a 3-2 edge. Both Husker wins in the Big Ten era have been in five sets, and all three losses to Penn State have been in four sets. Penn State (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) becomes the third top-three team to play Nebraska at the Devaney Center this season. Stanford handed the Nittany Lions’ their only defeat this season in a five-set showdown on Sept. 5. Aside from the Stanford loss, Penn State has dropped just two of 44 sets in its 14 victories.
Cook: Nebraska’s SRO Average ‘Blows Me Away’
Last year, Nebraska led the nation in attendance for the first time in more than two decades, averaging an NCAA-record 8,175 fans per match. The Huskers are on pace to surpass that mark this year, averaging 8,361 fans per contest through the first seven home matches. Nebraska’s NCAA-record consecutive sellout streak enters the weekend at 208. Before the Husker volleyball team headed back to Lincoln from Iowa City Saturday night, Cook (above) received a text about the public address announcement that the Huskers had swept the Hawkeyes in three sets. More than 91,000 fans at Memorial Stadium responded with gusto, and Cook is hoping for dynamic crowds this weekend. Nebraska’s average of selling more than 300 standing room only tickets this year “just blows me away,” Cook said.
Nebraska’s head coach knows Husker fans have remained positive despite three home-court losses to the nation’s top teams this season. At least 300 Nebraska fans also made the trip to Iowa City Saturday, giving the Huskers a major presence in a rival’s gym. Cook connected Nebraska and Penn State as rivals Monday because both schools belong to the same conference, are part of “the same family” and compete aggressively in national recruiting and overall performance. Since 2000, no programs have more AVCA All-Americans than Nebraska and Penn State. The Huskers lead the nation with 41 selections in the 21st Century, while Penn State is close behind at 40.
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