LINCOLN — The trajectory of the Nebraska volleyball team is decidedly different than a month ago, when the Huskers rolled out of bed for a Saturday morning match in St. Louis and fell flat in a loss to Auburn.
Nebraska was facing several circumstances that likely contributed to the loss. The Huskers were playing a rare morning match, with Auburn serving as the second of three opponents in a 24-hour span. The Tigers were an experienced group, while the Huskers had five new starters and were still adjusting to a new 6-2 offense.
“It was my fault because we weren't in the right system and still trying to figure things out,” Nebraska coach John Cook said Monday. “That was more on Auburn seizing an opportunity in a 10 o'clock in the morning match, and we're disorganized. That's on me.”
But it's clear the Huskers (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have found answers to many of those questions during the first month of the season.
After that first weekend in St. Louis, Cook switched to a more traditional 5-1 offense, and junior setter Mary Pollmiller has grown into the starting job. Freshman outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen, who missed the loss to Auburn while recovering from a shoulder injury, has emerged as the team's second leading attacker, with double-digit kills in six of her eight matches.
When Cook was asked Monday to reflect on the team's growth over the first month of the season, he wasn't able to identify one area where the Huskers have improved the most. The entire picture seems different.
“I'd have to say in everything,” Cook said. “In every part of the game, to confidence, to being a team, we've made huge strides in everything.”
Another sign of progress for Nebraska came last weekend with a pair of road wins to open Big Ten play.
Cook makes no effort to downplay how hard he feels this year's group competes. That toughness was evident when the Huskers went toe-to-toe at defending national champion Texas in a five-set loss on Sept. 22, and in a road sweep of Illinois on Saturday.
“There's times I looked out there (Saturday) and we had four or five freshmen out there,” Cook said. “At Illinois is not an easy place to play. They're right on top of you there. It's hotter than heck in that gym. Just our composure, our kids handled that really well.”
Part of that confidence may come from the Huskers settling on a starting lineup and the move to the 5-1, which keeps both Pollmiller and starting opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen on the floor in each rotation.
Pollmiller was named the Big Ten's setter of the week Monday, and Amber Rolfzen — despite struggling offensively last weekend — has been a dynamic attacker who adds an athletic element to the Huskers' block and floor defense.
“It just wasn't happening like we felt (it needed to),” Cook said of the 6-2. “We couldn't get the consistency that we needed. Maybe we should've stayed with it, I don't know. But you can see our team plays a lot better right now. We're trying to go fairly fast on our tempo, and it's hard when you've got two setters going in and out to keep a consistent tempo.”
Now it's a matter of making sure all the pistons can fire at the same time. Nebraska's middle blockers took a step forward offensively last weekend after a slow start to the season. Starters Meghan Haggerty and Cecilia Hall combined to hit .514 in the two matches.
The lessons NU learned in the season's first month will be tested again this week in the Huskers' conference home openers against No. 8 Minnesota (14-1) on Friday and No. 23 Wisconsin (13-1) on Saturday at the Devaney Center.
The Gophers rank second in the Big Ten in hitting (.330) and boast three All-America candidates in outside hitters Ashley Wittman and Daly Santana and middle blocker Tori Dixon. Meanwhile, the Badgers have won seven straight and feature freshman setter Lauren Carlini, the No. 1 national recruit in the Class of 2013.
With eight teams in the Top 25, the Big Ten gives the Huskers a steep learning curve, but so far Nebraska has proven capable of handling it.
“Certainly, the SEC in football, any win you get there is a great win, and I think that's what the Big Ten volleyball conference is like,” Cook said.
Pollmiller earns Big Ten honor
Pollmiller was named the conference setter of the week Monday after averaging 11.6 assists per set in Nebraska's wins at Northwestern and Illinois last weekend.
Pollmiller, a transfer from Tennessee, helped the Huskers to a .307 hitting mark against Northwestern and added nine digs.
It marks the first time a Husker has earned the award since Lauren Cook last October.
Huskers return to top 10
Nebraska moved up two spots to No. 10 in the AVCA coaches poll Monday, giving the Big Ten four teams in the top 10.
Penn State's loss at home to Michigan State last Friday knocked the Nittany Lions from the top spot down to No. 5. Undefeated Washington (10-0) is No. 1 team followed by Southern California, Florida and Texas.
Seven teams received votes for the No. 1 spot. Nebraska coach John Cook said he voted Michigan State No. 1 after the Spartans opened conference play with wins at Penn State and previously unbeaten Ohio State. Michigan State is ranked No. 9.
Wisconsin moved into the poll at No. 23 while Illinois fell out after its loss to Nebraska.
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Video: See John Cook's press conference: