By Randy York
Washington, USC, Florida and Texas are the nation’s top four-ranked women’s college volleyball teams, but check out the next 10 positions in the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s rankings announced Monday. Six represent the Big Ten Conference – No. 5 Penn State, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Michigan State, No. 10 Nebraska, No. 12 Ohio State and No. 14 Michigan. Please notice also that Wisconsin is ranked No. 23 and Purdue No. 24. That means two-thirds of the league is nationally ranked, and two Big Ten powers will experience the Bob Devaney Sports Center for the first time this weekend – Minnesota on Friday night and Wisconsin on Saturday night.
“I think our crowd is going to be a little more electric and into it now that it’s Big Ten teams instead of St. Mary’s or Dayton … I think it’ll all ramp up for us,” Nebraska Coach John Cook said Monday while acknowledging a more comfortable return to their new home after winning their first two conference matches on the road – 3-1 over Northwestern last Friday night in Evanston and sweeping Illinois 3-0 last Saturday night in Champaign. Cook told his team at Monday’s practice that there’s a very fine line separating college volleyball haves from the sport’s have-nots. If the Huskers correct about five serves against both Texas and Auburn, Cook said they might be ranked No. 1 right now. But they’re also just a few plays away from not even being ranked, he pointed out.
Can Fans Double the Noise and Intimidation?
Pleased with Nebraska’s back-to-back performances in Illinois, now’s the time for Cook’s young team to reinforce its 5-1 offense and capitalize on the electricity the Huskers earned from Big Red fans. Nebraska coaches, players and fans are looking for a way to double the noise and to strengthen the home-court advantage they enjoyed over nearly four decades in their old house, the NU Coliseum.
“We want to stay in the game, but the ante goes up this weekend,” said Cook, who relishes watching an occasional World Series of Poker show on television so he can see who’s ready to hold their cards and who’s ready to fold theirs. “We have two ranked teams coming in here. Minnesota has great stats, and Wisconsin’s off to a great start,” he said.
The Gophers are the Big Ten’s second best hitting team (.330), and Cook believes they have three legitimate All-America candidates in outside hitters Ashley Wittman and Daly Santana and middle blocker Tori Dixon. He also mentioned how Wisconsin, a school he once led to a national championship match, has won seven straight matches. The Badgers are 14-1 overall and directed by the No. 1 national recruit in the 2013 class – setter Lauren Carlini.
Reconfigured Team Learning to Play Together
That brings us to an important point about the Huskers. With a roster that includes eight freshmen and is considered the nation’s top 2013 recruiting class, plus Kelsey Robinson and Mary Pollmiller – two talented, team-leading transfers from Tennessee – the question is obvious. How have the Huskers recovered from their tenuous start to Top 10 status?
Asked to identify the progress, Cook broadens the answers. “I’d have to say in everything,” he said. “Every point of the game … from confidence to being a team … we’ve made huge strides in everything. The biggest surprise was our composure. I looked Saturday, and we had four or five freshmen out there. At Illinois is not an easy place to play. They’re right on top of you there, and it’s hotter than heck in that gym. Our kids handled that really well.” Such a sweep deserves a point of reference: The Illini may not be ranked in the Top 25, but they’ve swept Iowa State in Ames and won two sets against Texas.
“Any win in the Big Ten this year is a great win … road or home. I don’t think there’s an easy weekend out there for anyone,” said Cook, who asks his team to practice and play every day with a Navy Seal theme in mind – The only easy day was yesterday. That’s the way Cook sees the Big Ten, whether it’s inside out or upside down. Cook, in fact, voted Michigan State No. 1 on his national ballot this week, based on the Spartans’ 3-2 road upset of No. 1 Penn State last Thursday night and followed by a 3-0 sweep at previously undefeated Ohio State on Saturday.
NCAA Runner-up Seeking First League Win
“I don’t think anyone in our league is going to go undefeated,” Cook said. “If one team could do it, it would have been Penn State. That was a heck of a win out there by Michigan State. That just shows how strong this league is. Look at Michigan … they were in the Final Four last year, and they’re 0-2 right now (with losses at Ohio State and Penn State) … so there you go.”
The early bottom line in this logjam? A home-court advantage isn’t what it used to be, and Cook thinks you can flip a coin on the vast majority of Big Ten matchups, whether they’re played at home or on the road. Nebraska, of course, can be the exception to that general analysis. Will Husker fans generate the same kind of electricity they were known for inside the Coliseum? Can they ramp it up for their veteran head coach and his very young team? Can they do what Husker players want to do – re-create the Coliseum magic and bring it inside the walls of The Devaney?
Minnesota Coach Led USA’s Olympic Teams
Hugh McCutcheon, Minnesota’s head coach, has been head coach for both the USA women’s and men’s Olympic volleyball teams. Last year, his first at Minnesota, he led the Gophers to a tie for second in the Big Ten standings. Minnesota advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight and was just two sets shy of a Final Four appearance. The Gophers are very good, if not excellent.
Minnesota is one of four unbeaten teams in the Big Ten standings, and three will be competing this weekend in Lincoln – Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. That’s why Cook says with every match, the ante goes up, and no one loves that kind of challenge more than he does. Husker fans will play an important role in answering the pivotal question: Will The Devaney become the dangerous destination that Cook wants it to be or will some high-powered team come into our new home and spoil the party?
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