LINCOLN — This season has been one of self-discovery for the Nebraska volleyball team, an on-going process that may not have an end.
Strengths and weaknesses have changed without pattern during emotional victories and tough losses. There have been no “Eureka!” moments or an “It's all coming together” montage like in the movies.
The closest thing to a great truth might have come last Friday. Coach John Cook addressed his exhausted team after the Huskers had just dropped a heartbreaker at Minnesota, falling to the Gophers 21-19 in the fifth set after letting a 7-2 lead slip away in the decisive game.
“Coach told us, 'You guys are going to find out the type of team you are on Sunday,'” senior Hannah Werth said.
It was Nebraska's third straight five-set loss on the road, but there was little time to pout. The Huskers traveled from Minneapolis to Madison, where they sat around for 36 hours before playing a Wisconsin team that desperately needed a win to remain in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid. Nebraska swept the Badgers with decisive runs in each set.
Though it's clichť, losing builds character, but many past Husker teams haven't lost enough to find out. NU has dropped five conference matches this year, the most in school history. But wins don't come easy in the Big Ten, a conference that has dealt the Huskers enough blows in two years to build a pretty granite jaw that may come in handy in the postseason.
“We won these road matches last year. We were close this year,” Cook said. “Going through those matches are going to help us be mentally tough in the tournament.”
There is pressure that comes from being part of Nebraska volleyball. Some teams thrive on it but this club may play best when flying under the radar. The Huskers have won a pair of home matches against No. 1 teams but dropped four matches on the road against lower-ranked foes.
While the coach openly worried last week that those defeats might have chipped away at the team's confidence, his daughter said those losses might prove to be a blessing, eliminating the target on Nebraska's backs.
Lauren Cook said the recent stretch in which the team dropped four of seven matches was painful but likely necessary to teach the team what it can and can't do, how to play within itself and when to be aggressive and when to be disciplined — little things that can be magnified when a match that goes 200 rallies is decided by one or two key points.
“We've just learned a lot about each other,” the senior setter said. “When we do get in those situations, what we've been resorting to isn't working. We're kind of learning, 'OK, if this comes down to this in the tournament, we can't let this happen.'”
“Hopefully we've learned from that, and the rest of these Big Ten games and into the tournament, if something happens we'll know how to get out of it.”
The final two matches of the regular season, starting with Wednesday's 7 p.m. contest with Iowa (10-21, 2-16 Big Ten), bring a different kind of pressure. No. 10 Nebraska (21-6, 13-5) begins its last slate of matches at NU Coliseum before moving to the Devaney Center next season.
The Huskers likely will host NCAA first- and second-round matches next weekend at the Coliseum, in addition to Saturday's finale with Northwestern, but they are determined that there won't be another home loss in the building the program has called home since 1975.
“With being the last team that's going to play in the Coliseum, we want to leave with that unfinished business notion we set at the beginning of our season,” Werth said. “Just knowing we need to protect the Coliseum and everyone that has been before us, everything we've been saying, it's not just words anymore. It's actions, just carrying out and doing them. Making a statement physically, not just verbally.”
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