This is right where John Cook hoped his Nebraska volleyball team would be.
There are four matches left in the regular season, and the Huskers are in contention for a Big Ten championship. The Big Ten race could be much clearer after the No. 6 Huskers (22-3, 14-2 in the Big Ten) play at No. 7 Minnesota (20-4, 14-2) on Friday night and at No. 5 Wisconsin (19-5, 15-1) on Sunday.
Nebraska sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said the Huskers are looking forward to the opportunity they have on this road trip.
“I think we embrace it,” Hames said. “You know you’re not going to have your home crowd cheering for you and you kind of have to bring your own energy and I think when you win on the road against a really good team, you win because you had to put in a little more effort and try a little harder.”
The Huskers are 34-9 all-time against Minnesota, but the Gophers — who are loaded with experienced players — won both meetings a year ago. Nebraska is 19-6-1 all-time against Wisconsin, but the Badgers swept the Huskers Oct. 5 in Lincoln for their fifth win in the last seven matchups.
Nebraska’s last win in Madison was in 2013.
Cook understands the challenge that the Huskers face this weekend.
“Statistically, we’re doing some pretty good things,” he said. “I think we’ve got to continue to try to win the serve and pass battles. That’s the biggest thing, and going on the road that’s a bigger challenge.”
Hames is still a young setter for the Huskers, but she’s been through the Big Ten wars now for two seasons. She said she’s much more comfortable with it all now than she was as a freshman.
“Last year, it was still really new to me because I didn’t really understand the whole experience and finishing Big Ten and then heading into the tournament was all new,” Hames said. “So this year I kind of have an understanding of how it goes and it gives you a little bit more confidence and you’re at ease a little bit more because you know how the system works and how it goes.”
Cook said Hames is just technically better this season.
“Her distribution is pretty even,” Cook said. “She’s doing a really good job blocking. For her size she does a great job, and she’s a great defensive player, a great server so I just think she’s kind of elevated in every area.”
That distribution has been extremely even. Lexi Sun leads in kills with 322 while Jazz Sweet has 249, freshman Madi Kubik 248 and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins 247.
Kubik has been coming on strong lately as a six-rotation player.
“I think Maddie has just found her confidence in her game,” Hames said. “I know it’s really hard stepping into the role that she did, you know, replacing (Mikaela) Foecke, and she’s embracing it. I think over time she’s gained that confidence and it’s shown out on the court in all aspects, on defense and hitting and she’s putting up great numbers. She’s just playing really well. I think she’s just jelled, and it’s starting to show.”
Kubik has been a six-rotation player for the Huskers almost the entire season. Opponents have targeted her with their serves, but she’s handled that well and was by far the team’s leader in number of serves received.
“I just think she’s understanding the load that she has to carry and how to work at it each day,” Cook said. “And she comes in and works really hard at practice to get better and I think mentally she’s handling it better now. Like I told her, and I told all those freshmen, you know, high school volleyball is over now so technically you’re now sophomores, so just start acting and playing like it.
“But she’s done a good job carrying a big load for us as a freshman and I think she’s really progressed well.”