It has been a few weeks since Nebraska coach John Cook said he felt like the Huskers could be one of the most improved teams in college volleyball this season.
So far, so good for the Huskers. Nebraska (11-2, 4-0 Big Ten) is tied for the lead in the Big Ten Conference and has its highest national ranking of the season at No. 9.
Once limited to mostly an outside attack, the Huskers’ middle blockers are now more than helping the cause.
In conference play, Nebraska has done it all, winning a toss-up match against then-No. 8 Minnesota, winning in five sets against Wisconsin and avoiding tripping up on the road against Northwestern and Illinois.
The Huskers are probably ahead of schedule on the major improvement Cook had expected.
“Everything is getting better and better,” Cook said. “Three weeks ago we’re talking about whether we have a middle attack, and look at their numbers over the last four matches. (Freshman right-side hitter Amber Rolfzen) hasn’t had great numbers, but Amber is dominating blocking and just held three All-American left-side hitters to .140 in the last two weeks.”
Nebraska now heads out for what could be one of its toughest conference road trips of the season, against Michigan and Michigan State. Last season, when Nebraska was probably more talented than this season and for sure had more experience, the then-No. 4 Huskers went 0-2 on the Michigan trip, losing to two unranked opponents.
The Huskers play against No. 17 Michigan (11-4, 1-3) on Friday in Ann Arbor. Michigan lost to ranked Penn State and Ohio State and in five sets to Illinois, but has most of its team back from last year's NCAA Tournament Final Four squad.
On Saturday, Nebraska plays No. 7 Michigan State, which is tied with NU for the Big Ten lead and, with a 15-1 record, is off to its best start since its 1995 Final Four season. The Spartans showed how good they were by winning on the road at Penn State to open conference play.
Michigan State senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski is second to NU’s Kelsey Robinson in kills per set in Big Ten play at 5.00 per set.
Last season, Nebraska was able to hit the ground running because it had so many players returning. This year, all but sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty are new to the starting lineup.
Husker setter Mary Pollmiller has seen the team’s passing make big strides, because most of the primary passers had not played together before.
“I think the trust with each other is where we’ve made our most improvement. You can just see it and feel it on the court,” Pollmiller said.
With 16 more conference matches, then the NCAA Tournament, Pollmiller is excited to see how much more improvement can be made.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near as good as we can be,” she said. “Everybody comes in wanting to learn more, and if someone does have an off day, it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get back on track.’ Everybody comes in hungry, not just to win, but to improve the team.”
The re-emergence of Haggerty and her connection with Pollmiller following Haggerty's strong freshman season have been key to the Huskers’ improvement. She averaged 1.60 kills per set, with a .198 hitting percentage in nonconference play. In conference matches, Haggerty is averaging 2.1 kills per set, with a league-best .446 hitting percentage.
With so many new players not used to having big roles at the college level — middle blocker Cecilia Hall, libero Justine Wong-Orantes and Kadie and Amber Rolfzen — Cook says the players are worried about themselves. Once they become more comfortable with their job, they’ll be able to give to their teammates more, and that should make the team better.
During a long Big Ten season, all those freshmen are going to have off nights and possibly wear down. Still, they keep showing how good they can be.
“I pulled (Kadie Rolfzen) out (against Wisconsin) and she comes in during set five and has two monster kills and looked like a first-team All-American left-side hitter on those two swings, and passed great and made some great digs,” Cook said.