LINCOLN — As the Nebraska volleyball team moves into the second half of the Big Ten schedule this week, don’t look for drastic improvements in any one area, coach John Cook said Monday.
But that doesn’t mean incremental advances aren’t tremendously important.
While the focus for the Huskers remains on getting better each week, No. 11 Nebraska has built a solid base of play that leaves it in second place in the conference standings. Nebraska’s 8-2 league record is one game behind No. 2 Penn State.
It will be the small refinements in each area that could determine whether a talented, young team that is getting valuable experience by the match will finish near the top of the Big Ten standings.
“When I talk ‘better,’ it’s not like you’re going to see big jumps in this category or that stat,” Cook said. “I’m talking about one percent better. Can we get one percent better? That’s one point maybe, or two points in a game. Whether that’s serving, blocking, or making another dig. (Setter Mary Pollmiller) bettering a ball for one of our hitters. It’s a very small improvement. It can be anywhere.”
It can even be in intensity, which often shows up the most in the Huskers’ floor defense. Nebraska learned the consequences of an uninspired effort in its Oct. 18 loss to Purdue when the Boilermakers hit .309, a season-high attack percentage for a Husker opponent.
Libero Justine Wong-Orantes said Monday the loss helped refocus and reenergize the team when it came to floor defense. NU responded by holding last week’s opponents, Iowa and Ohio State, to a combined .117 hitting mark in a pair of Huskers wins.
“That Purdue match really took a toll on us and really opened our eyes,” said Wong-Orantes, who had 25 digs in last week’s victories. “The next day in practice, we kind of got in the mindset that ‘OK, teams are really going after us, and we have a target on our backs because we are Nebraska.’ Going into the next day in practice, we really focused in and went a 110-percent mindset. Definitely, this past weekend against Ohio State, our floor defense was amazing.”
Cook said Monday he believed at the start of the year Nebraska could grow into an excellent blocking team. However, NU’s floor defense and consistency on offense in spite of working five new starters into the lineup has been a pleasant surprise for the coach.
In Big Ten matches, Nebraska is hitting 101 percentage points higher than its opponents on average. That gap is the second-highest in the league behind only the Nittany Lions. Penn State is hitting .302 in the league, while holding foes to a .152 mark.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but that’s the one thing that surprises me is the gap between us offensively and our opponents’ attack percentage is a little higher than I thought it would be,” Cook said.
Now, Cook will look for ways in practice to make the small improvements that keep production high as the stakes get bigger in the second half of the conference schedule.
Nebraska will host a pair of rematches this week — Illinois on Wednesday and Northwestern on Saturday. The Huskers won both of the first meetings.
Both teams are 5-5 in Big Ten play, tied for seventh in the league standings, and would gain a huge addition to its NCAA tournament resume by winning in Lincoln.
Illinois, which will play Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Devaney Center, is 9-11 overall, but is coming off a four-set upset win at No. 15 Wisconsin last weekend.
“Illinois is in must-wins right now,” Cook said. “They’ve got to go 7-3 just to be eligible for the tournament in the second half. (Wisconsin) was a huge win for them. They lose that and then they’ve got to go 8-2 in the second half. They’re under the gun.”
Huskers earn Big Ten honors
The Big Ten Conference recognized a pair of Huskers with weekly accolades Monday, naming junior setter Mary Pollmiller the league’s setter of the week and outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen freshman of the week.
It’s the second honor for Pollmiller, who also was named setter of the week on Sept. 30. The Littleton, Colo., native led Nebraska to a .345 team hitting percentage in wins last week over Iowa and Ohio State. Against the Buckeyes, Pollmiller had a double-double with 53 set assists and 11 digs.
For Rolfzen, it is the first Big Ten weekly honor, but the second one in her family. Twin sister Amber twice has been named the league’s top newcomer on Sept. 16 and Oct. 7. Kadie Rolfzen averaged 3.9 kills and 3.0 digs per set in NU’s wins last week while hitting .449. The Papillion-LaVista South product had 11 kills and 12 digs in the win over Iowa.
Huskers stays outside top 10
Nebraska moved up two spots to No. 11 in the AVCA coaches’ poll released Monday, marking the first time this season only one Big Ten team made the top 10.
After a couple weeks of turmoil at the top of the poll, the first six teams in the rankings remain unchanged from last week. Texas keeps the No. 1 spot, followed by Penn State, Washington, Southern Cal, Florida, and Stanford.
Seven Big Ten teams are in the rankings with Ohio State dropping out following a pair of losses last week.
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Video: Nebraska coach John Cook at the Monday press conference: