Photo by Allyssa Hynes/Nebraska Communications

Defense Spurring No. 3 Huskers

By Brian Rosenthal

Water is wet, sky is blue, and teams that hold opponents to the lowest hitting percentage in the Big Ten Conference will win Big Ten Conference volleyball championships.

Year-in, and year out.

Bank on it.

“It’s been a 100 percent correlation,” John Cook said.

Cook should know. The veteran Nebraska volleyball coach has led the Huskers to back-to-back Big Ten titles, and he has his team off to a 4-0 start atop the league standings, alongside co-frontrunner Minnesota.

Oh, and guess who’s leading the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage?

Not only is Nebraska’s .112 defensive percentage tops in the conference, it’s No. 1 in the nation, as the third-ranked Huskers (13-1, 4-0) host Iowa (10-5, 2-2) on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Devaney Sports Center. The match will be televised live on BTN.

“As long as you play good defense, you have a chance to win, whether you have a great offensive night or not,” Cook said. “That’s what we always want to go in with.”

Nebraska boasts no secret formula. The talented Huskers simply rely on intense training and preparation in order to produce top-notch defense.

“Defense is about effort and heart and mindset,” Cook said. “It’s just the way we train. We make it important, and our players believe in it.”

Senior libero Kenzie Maloney initiates the defense and averages 3.86 digs per set to lead Nebraska. Also, freshman middle Callie Schwarzenbarch ranks first in the Big Ten and second in the nation with 1.66 blocks per set, as the Huskers rank No. 10 nationally with 2.7 blocks per set.

“Efficiency-wise,” Cook said, “we’re blocking at a really high level.”

Nebraska’s defense hasn’t dropped from last season despite losing Sydney Townsend, Annika Albrecht and other defensive-minded players that set an example for future teams.

“We were training under them for a long time, and they definitely showed us what to do,” sophomore setter Jazz Sweet said. “With practice, we work on defense every day, so those two things together really have helped us with defense this year.”

Perhaps that’s why Sweet isn’t surprised the Huskers have reeled off 13 straight matches, dating to a season-opening loss to Florida, despite having lost four starters from a national championship team.

“I thought we were going to have a good season,” said Sweet, who’s hitting .293 and is second on the team in total kills. “I knew we would have some work, like some bugs to work through.

“We’re young, and then we have a lot of freshmen playing. It was just trying to figure out how that was going to work together and how we were going to get that flow back.”

Communication, Sweet said, is among the biggest keys for a young team.

“It’s just something we have to focus on and really work on,” Sweet said. “It’s a skill you control yourself, not something you’re either good or bad at. We’ve just got to keep working on that.”

Cook hadn’t had major qualms with his team’s communication until Friday’s sweep at unranked Northwestern, a match Cook flatly said didn’t live up to Husker volleyball standards.

“Communication’s a two-way deal. It’s talking and it’s listening,” Cook said. “We had people crashing into each other. I hadn’t seen that all year.”

The Huskers regrouped and quickly corrected those communication problems in time to hand Illinois its first loss of the season on Saturday, in four sets. Leadership from Maloney and senior Mikaela Foecke made a difference.

“Mikaela and Kenzie are great leaders,” Cook said, “and they are getting this team … pushing every day to get better and learn from our mistakes and things we need to get better at.”

Nebraska hosts travel partner Iowa – a team its swept 18 straight times and has never lost to in 27 matches – before Saturday’s 7 p.m. showdown with No. 5 Minnesota in Lincoln.

“We’re excited for the challenges this week,” Cook said, “and we’ll see if we can keep getting better.”

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

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