Photo by Allyssa Hynes/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Still Pushing In Practice

By Brian Rosenthal

John Cook hurried his way past a group of reporters waiting to interview the Nebraska volleyball coach after a practice earlier this week.

“Gimme 30 seconds,” Cook said as he ducked into a room for a quick post-practice gathering with his team.

A while later, Cook grinned and apologized for not adhering to his time prediction. His players had his ear longer than he expected.

“They were gabbing away about practice,” Cook explained.

Suffice it to say “gabbing” does not mean “complaining.” Quite the contrary, actually. Players were expressing their pleasure after Cook and his staff had just put the Huskers through a gauntlet of drills.

“This team loves to train,” Cook said. “They love to be in the gym and they love to be pushed.”

So if you think No.6 Nebraska (26-6) is easing up and setting cruise control heading into Friday’s NCAA Tournament regional semifinal match with Kentucky (26-4), well, you’re far mistaken.

From Day One, this has been a team in progress, and that certainly doesn’t stop now. This late in the season, practice is meant for growth and improvement as much as it is for preparation for Kentucky.

How else is Nebraska going to make a fourth straight Final Four -- which has never been accomplished in program history -- with seven players on its roster who've not been to just one?

“It’s not coming in here and kicking the ball around and tell them how great they are. We got after it,” Cook said. “We had four really tough drills. They couldn’t get out of it until they got it done. We put as much heat on them as we could and were as tough on them as we could. The have to figure out a way to be successful.”

Nebraska, the defending national champion, has won 10 straight matches, including its last five by sweep. To make a return trip to Minneapolis next weekend, the Huskers must defeat Kentucky and, likely, tournament host Minnesota, which twice defeated Nebraska in four sets in the regular season.

That was part of a stretch of seven of 10 matches against ranked Big Ten Conference teams, including four on the road, for a battled-tested Nebraska team. Five of the Huskers’ six losses came in that stretch.

What did Cook learn about his team?

“They’re really resilient, (they can) stay with the process,” Cook said. “They were upset and tired of losing. They realized and bought into everything we were talking about, and it’s a process we’re going through.”

Kentucky, meanwhile, began the season 3-4, with losses to No. 13 Creighton, No. 10 USC, Northern Iowa and No. 6 Texas, then faced only two more ranked teams, Florida and Missouri, the remainder of the season.

While the Wildcats did go 18-0 en route to winning the Southeastern Conference championship, its path to the postseason wasn’t as grueling as it was for Nebraska.

“I think that gives us an advantage going in,” Cook said, noting the Big Ten has six teams in the Sweet 16, “that we understand the level we’re going to have to play at and how hard it’s going to be and how important each point is. I’m hoping that gives us an edge.”

Kentucky, coached by former Nebraska assistant Craig Skinner, ranks fourth nationally in hitting at .305, while Nebraska continues to lead the nation in opponent hitting percentage, at .132. Cook said the Wildcats have outside hitters similar to what he’s seen from Minnesota.

This is a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament regional final, when the Huskers defeated the Wildcats on their home court in four sets to reach the Final Four. The Huskers are 8-2 all time against Kentucky.

“They’re a really good team,” Cook said. “They have great stats. They don’t make a lot of errors. That’s why they’re SEC champs.”

Offensively, the Huskers have hit at least .350 in five straight matches, the longest such streak in the Cook era, which dates to 2000.

“A lot of the credit goes to Nicklin,” Cook said of freshman setter Nicklin Hames. “She’s getting really comfortable. She loves these big matches, and I think her confidence level is really, really high.”

Same goes for the team, said sophomore hitter Jazz Sweet.

“We have a push of confidence right now,” Sweet said, “because we’re starting to see what we can do.”

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

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