Photo by Laura Leffler

Huskers Come Full Circle With Penn State

By Brian Rosenthal

Nebraska had lost to Northern Iowa on a neutral court, already the Huskers’ third loss in three weeks to begin the 2017 volleyball season.

Sure enough, the rebuilding year many fans and media had expected from a program that lost three All-Americans from back-to-back Final Four teams – one of which captured a national championship -- was seemingly coming to fruition.

“So I’m like, the wheels have come off,” veteran Nebraska coach John Cook said he remembers thinking on Sept. 16. “I hope we can even survive the Big Ten and get to the NCAA tournament.”

OK, that’s being a little too dramatic.

Or, is it?

Nebraska’s next match, to begin a grueling-as-always Big Ten Conference season, was at top-ranked Penn State. How would a beat-down to the Nittany Lions affect this young team's psyche? How would six freshmen and a plethora of other staff and coaching newcomers respond?

But Cook remembered something from his 18 seasons coaching the Huskers. Sometimes after a loss, you learn a lot.

Maybe Nebraska could compete with powerful Penn State, after all.

Or, how about hand the Nittany Lions their first home sweep in 14 years?

That, of course, is what transpired on Sept. 22, a confidence boost so big, so powerful, that it’s setting up yet another battle between these Big Ten Conference rivals – in the NCAA Final Four.

Penn State (33-1, 19-1 Big Ten) and Nebraska (30-4, 19-1) will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, in front of a sellout crowd that will be decisively pro-Nebraska.

This is the 11th straight season the Big Ten Conference has fielded at least one team in the Final Four, and the winner will give the conference a team in the national championship match for the ninth time in 11 seasons.

For sure, Nebraska’s September victory in State College set the tone.

It’s darned near impossible to overvalue the importance of that triumph, as it validated all the hard work Nebraska players and coaches had poured into helping this team come together to exceed expectations.

For that matter, Penn State has always been a big measuring stick for Cook in how he judges his program’s progress.

“I remember when I was coaching at Wisconsin, in the Big Ten, Penn State was the team to beat,” Cook said at Wednesday’s NCAA news conference in Kansas City. “So everything you did was, okay, every decision you make, how are you going to beat Penn State?

“Then I come to Nebraska, you know, and we’re dominating the last decade early, and we’re winning and beating Penn State. Then all of a sudden, Penn State goes on a four-year National Championship run.”

Everything has always gone back to the same premise – every decision in recruiting, how players train, what systems coaches will run – How can we beat Penn State?

Look now, and the Huskers have reeled off six straight victories over the Nittany Lions, including last year’s epic regional semifinal in Lincoln, when they rallied from a 2-0 deficit. They are 7-3 all-time against Penn State in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve had a lot of epic matches,” Cook said. “It’s one of the, I think, most exciting rivalries, if you want to call it that, in college volleyball. They’re a lot of fun to play, and I think both teams bring out the best in each other.

“There’s big moments, big plays, highlight-type plays. And of course, those guys are going to have highlight-type kills that makes it more exciting. Every time we play them, there is an intensity.”

Nebraska, which produced four players with All-America honors this season, has an effectively-balanced attack that can gnaw at teams like Penn State that focus on shutting down an opponent’s top one or two players.

“We have a lot of weapons on front row and back row, and it’s hard to defend teams like that,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “They really have to wait and read on us because we have so many offensive weapons.”

If Penn State is focused on avenging its only loss – or perhaps settling who’s best in the Big Ten – the Nittany Lions aren’t showing it.

“We can’t look to the past,” said Penn State senior outside hitter Simone Lee, the Big Ten Player of the Year. “It’s about the game that’s going to happen tomorrow, and how we prepare for it today, and how we prepare for it the rest of the week.”

Penn State coach Russ Rose, when asked how many past Nebraska matches he’s focused on watching, said he’s only looked at the Huskers’ last couple of matches to see where opponents were causing problems.

“I don’t spend all my time worrying or talking about Nebraska. You guys cover Nebraska, so it’s more appropriate that that’s the center of your attention,” Rose said.

“We lost the first match on the Big Ten schedule and won the next 19 and have the same Big Ten Championship banner hanging, if we were to hang a banner like that. So, I think -- you know, we played 30-plus matches. All of the teams were teams that we had to focus on and be prepared for.”

No. 1 seed Penn State leads the nation with a .345 hitting percentage and ranks fifth in blocks per set. Lee leads the Nittany Lions with 490 kills, or 3.9 per set, and Haleigh Washington leads the nation with a .503 hitting percentage.

Nebraska, meanwhile, has lost only one set and allowed just 221 points through its first four NCAA Tournament matches, the fewest of any of the four remaining teams. Middle blocker Briana Holman leads the Huskers with a hitting percentage of .355.

“One thing coach always tells us is to dream big,” senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht said. “I think we say it all the time, and sometimes it’s a joke, but I think that’s real. I think with our class that came in, and Kelly before us and the girls ever since, I think we’ve all come in and we really do dream big.

“We dream of these big spotlight moments and the Final Four, and we dream of playing in the national championship every year.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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