LINCOLN — Knowing that a team with 10 new players would take time to gel, John Cook built this season's schedule for Nebraska volleyball in deliberate stages.
The Huskers opened on the road in St. Louis against three teams with low expectations, though Auburn dealt NU a surprise loss for its only defeat of the season.
Last weekend, the Huskers dropped only one game in beating three teams favored to reach this year's NCAA tournament. Now, at 7-1 and ranked 12th in the country, is Nebraska close to having established its identity for 2013?
“This past week was a really good chance to for us to start figuring that out, see who's going to do what, and how we have to be successful,” Cook said. “We've got a long ways to go.”
The Huskers plan to use a full week of practice to sort out some remaining questions before traveling to Austin, Texas, for a Sunday match with the defending NCAA champion Longhorns. Texas returns five starters off last year's title team.
“We're just scratching the surface. That's why we're going to Texas,” Cook said. “We've got to continue to figure some things out.
“They're a team that's going to be in the hunt for national championships, so we've got to use that for a measuring stick for where we're at and how far we have to go, and do it on the road.”
Here's what we know so far about the Huskers: Nebraska has three versatile pin hitters in left-side hitters Kelsey Robinson and Kadie Rolfzen and opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen. Robinson, the senior transfer from Tennessee, has already stamped her fiery attitude on the team. She leads the club with 3.8 kills per set and is the team's best passer.
The Rolfzens have reasonably met the unprecedented expectations placed upon them after earning four years of prep accolades at Papillion-La Vista South. Amber was named Big Ten Conference co-freshman of the week after racking up three double-doubles in the Ameritas Players Classic to earn tournament MVP honors, while Kadie is second on the team with 3.6 kills per set.
Not only have those three carried the offense, but they have helped Nebraska put together a floor defense that Cook said already surpasses last season's. The Huskers are holding opponents to a .122 attack percentage, which ranks second among Big Ten teams, and allowed St. Mary's, Dayton and Iowa State to hit a combined .119 last weekend.
“That's a stellar effort in three matches against three quality teams like that,” Cook said.
Question marks remain in the middle, where Nebraska has struggled to get kills from its middle blockers. Cook has juggled the lineup to rotate Meghan Haggerty, Cecilia Hall and Alicia Ostrander as starters, but no two have made a claim to a permanent starting job.
Haggerty, who hit .333 last year as a freshman, is hitting just .167 this season. Ostrander, a sophomore walk-on, earned her first two starts this weekend and played solid, Cook said. However, the coach is still looking for an opportunity to give true freshman Melanie Keil a chance in a match, which almost came against Iowa State on Saturday before the coaches decided not to throw the Berlin, Germany, native cold into a tight rivalry match.
“We've just got to find the right opportunity, and she's still up and down in practice,” Cook said. “Some days good, some days not so good. But there's some days, she's been really good. She's got to get comfortable being here. It's a big adjustment for her.”
And more adjustments will come before Sunday's 1 p.m. match in Austin, which can be seen on the Longhorn Network. Cook wants to see more discipline in the attack, which Nebraska will need against the Longhorns' imposing block. A more confident connection between setter Mary Pollmiller and the middle blockers will help diversify the Husker offense and prevent opponents from sending two blockers at NU's outsides.
But off to a strong start and with some emerging playmakers, the Huskers have at least begun to define themselves as a team on the right path after three weeks of play.
“I still think we're very much a work in progress,” Cook said. “I didn't have a set thing of where we'd be and how fast we'd get there. I know we can do some really good things. I've seen it. Now, we've just got to do it consistently. That's going to be our challenge.”
Upsets shake up AVCA top 10
Penn State climbed to No. 1 in Monday's AVCA coaches poll after a series of upsets jumbled the top 10. Three of the top four teams in last week's poll dropped matches last weekend.
Southern Cal, last week's No. 1, was upset by San Diego, which jumped from No. 9 to No. 2 in this week's poll. The Women of Troy fell to fifth. No. 2 Texas dropped to No. 6 after being swept by Arizona State in the Illinois tournament. Minnesota, No. 4 in last week's poll, dropped a five-set match at Kentucky and slid to No. 9.
“It's becoming more and more like college basketball I think, especially early in the season,” Cook said. “If you don't show up, a lot of teams can beat you.”
No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Florida, No. 7 Hawaii, No. 8 Stanford and No. 10 Michigan round out the top 10.
Cook's yellow card deliberate
Cook said he was deliberately digging for the yellow card in the second set of Saturday's Iowa State's match to prove a point to his team.
“Sometimes your team's got to know you're going to fight for them,” Cook said. “I didn't know how our team would respond, so at the timeout I said, 'I did that because I want you guys to know we're not going to accept what we think might be a bad call and just live with it and not make a point about it.' ”
Tied 12-12 in the set, Pollmiller fired what was initially ruled an ace serve by the line official, but the chair umpire overruled the call, declaring the serve out and putting the Cyclones on top.
Replays showed the ball appeared to land inbounds comfortably. An animated Cook voiced his displeasure to the down official positioned between the team's benches before being given a yellow card by the chair umpire.
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Video: Nebraska coach John Cook at Monday's press conference: