LINCOLN — As the program’s history paraded before them Friday night, the current Nebraska volleyball players sat on the bench, and watched and stewed.
The No. 4-rated Huskers had just been upset by No. 20 Ohio State at the NU Coliseum, and then watched as three decades worth of former players — many of whom never lost at match on the Huskers’ home floor — walked on to the floor to be honored for their contributions to the program.
The 20-minute ceremony gave the Huskers time to think. Time to hurt.
So when the salute to the program’s past was finished, the current NU team went downstairs into its locker room and pledged not to leave until it could agree on a course for the team’s future — which would start less than 48 hours later against No. 1 Penn State.
“We just kind of lost sight of why we play,” senior outside hitter Gina Mancuso said. “We felt like we were so focused on winning that we just forgot to have fun. That’s what we really focused on, and talked about, and cleared up.”
Two days later, the team that emerged from that locker room late Friday night staged a monumental comeback, defeating a Penn State team that is the athletic superior to almost anyone in the country — including Nebraska.
Given several chances to fold up shop, the Huskers put on one of the most resilient displays in the recent memory of the Coliseum. Nebraska won the match despite taking just 103 rallies (compared to Penn State’s 113) and hitting a season-low .171.
So what kind of inspirational rhetoric fueled the turnaround? Hannah Werth said it’s not for public consumption.
“I’d say that’s more personal within our team,” she said. “But, just knowing that we have each others’ backs and that we trust each other, I’d say that those are the two main things that we displayed and definitely talked about. We’re very proud of ourselves for what we did. Those were the main things, so just leave it at that.”
Trust. It’s been the Huskers’ one-word mantra since the end of last season, present in almost every interview with a player or coach. The catalyst that makes the Huskers play greater than the sum of their parts.
It carried Nebraska to an early-season win over UCLA when the Bruins sat two points from victory before the Huskers rallied in the fifth set — the knowledge that everything you do is geared toward helping the team win. Keeping your swings in play, hitting the floor for a dig, exhausting yourself playing defense even when your offense is hibernating.
Somehow, it was gone Friday when NU lost its first regular season match at home in almost three seasons. And the Huskers kept the door closed until they could get some of it back.
“There was so much trust,” Mancuso said after Sunday’s win. “We played with a lot of passion, and that’s what we wanted to focus on because Friday it didn’t seem like that. That was our focus today, and it just felt really great. Great win.”
Trust isn’t just given, it’s earned, which means sometimes it has to be earned back. Werth struggled through much of Sunday’s match. She and Morgan Broekhuis were pulled in Game 1 when their 16 combined swings yielded no kills. Werth was lifted again in Game 3, and in Game 4 she was blocked resoundingly three times in 13 attacks.
But, in the decisive fifth set, there was no stopping Werth. She pounded three kills in four rallies to give Nebraska a 6-4 lead, the final swing a deceptive crosscourt shot around the Nittany Lion block that had terrorized Nebraska all afternoon.
All afternoon, Werth threw herself to the floor to keep rallies alive, finishing with a career-best 27 digs. When the match finished, tears rolled down her face, and yet no one looked happier.
“That was a highlight for me was seeing how she performed in Game 5 after struggling almost through the first four games,” NU coach John Cook said. “That’s what you hope for, that your players’ self-belief and trust is enough that they can do that when it matters even though things haven’t gone their way. That was huge.”
It’s easier to trust in something you’ve experienced, and Cook said Sunday’s win should give his team a surplus of confidence for the next big match, the next dogfight, or the next time that trust may be in short supply as the Huskers work their way closer to the postseason.
“You can’t create those situations in practice,” Cook said. “You’ve got to go through them and let them respond and learn. I think whether you win or lose, you still learn a lot. Those are all experiences that will help us down the road when we get into the (NCAA) tournament.”
Friday’s meeting may have been for players’ ears only, but by Sunday night, the result was there for all to see.
“I think this really shows the heart and the toughness this team has,” Broekhuis said. “If we can channel that and use it all the time, not just when we need to, the limit is endless for us.”
Nebraska remains steady in rankings
After the weekend split, Nebraska held steady in the rankings for the third straight week. The Huskers remained No. 4 in the AVCA coaches’ poll and No. 3 in the NCAA RPI ratings.
No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 Oregon each moved up a spot in the coaches’ poll with Penn State’s loss, while the Nittany Lions fell to No. 3. No. 5 UCLA rounded out the top five.
Haggerty named top freshman
Meghan Haggerty was named Big Ten freshman of the week Monday for the third time this season. The middle blocker from Glen Ellyn, Ill., had 12 kills and a team-high seven blocks against Penn State on Sunday.
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