Wins in Big Ten volleyball won't come easy

2012-09-18T23:30:00Z 2012-09-21T21:24:57Z Wins in Big Ten volleyball won't come easyBy BRENT C. WAGNER / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Nebraska-Omaha, a program new to NCAA Division I college volleyball, beat Syracuse this season.

Syracuse beat Iowa State.

Iowa State defeated Nebraska.

What’s the point? Well, maybe not that UNO could beat Nebraska, but it’s clear that there are more teams capable of winning against the top programs in the country. If you don’t play well, as was the case for Iowa State against Syracuse and Nebraska against Iowa State, you can get beat.

Five or 10 years ago, Nebraska probably could have played poorly against Iowa State and the headline the next day would have said, “Coach not happy following Nebraska’s sweep of Cyclones.”

That’s not the case anymore, with more schools putting resources into their volleyball programs and plenty of high-level players to go around.

“I think each year there is more and more parity,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Just look at the scores every week. (Defending national champion and top-ranked) UCLA almost lost at (unranked) Colorado State.”

The thought that almost any team can be beat on any given night is worth repeating as Nebraska embarks on 2 1/2 months of Big Ten Conference play.

Nebraska lost its first match of the season last week against then-No. 25 Iowa State. The Huskers (8-1) dropped from first to third in this week’s AVCA poll.

And it’s probably not a complete stretch to believe Nebraska could start Big Ten play with two losses. The Huskers play at No. 4 Penn State on Wednesday. Penn State (10-1) has a ton of talent, led by first-team All-American outside hitter Deja McClendon, and two wins against top-10 teams.

Nebraska plays at Ohio State on Saturday. And while on paper this is a match Nebraska should probably win, the Buckeyes’ No. 23 ranking is two spots higher than Iowa State was at the time the Cyclones knocked off Nebraska.

It’s also probably not a stretch to believe Nebraska could start the Big Ten with a 0-2 record but, by reversing the results when Penn State and Ohio State make return trips to Lincoln in October, still win the Big Ten championship.

This isn’t like the Huskers’ previous conference, where a few losses could cost you the league title. Last year, Nebraska won the conference title with a 17-3 record. In 2010, Penn State won the league with a 16-4 mark.

Big Ten programs again showed during the nonconference season that the league will be competitive again in 2012.

Texas, which began the season ranked No. 2, has three losses. All three came against Big Ten teams — Penn State, Minnesota and Illinois.

Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the Top 25 — No. 3 Nebraska, No. 4 Penn State, No. 12 Minnesota, No. 17 Purdue, No. 20 Illinois, No. 23 Ohio State and No. 25 Michigan State. Two others — Michigan and Northwestern — are receiving votes.

“Everybody’s good in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “It’s going to be this way for the next 10 weeks.”

Nebraska was able to win the Big Ten last year by getting off to a strong start and not losing a home match. The Huskers opened play in their new conference with a five-set win against a Penn State team coming off its fourth-straight NCAA championship, and Nebraska went on to win its first 11 conference matches. The Huskers’ losses were each on the road against Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern.

Cook said he’s probably more confident in Nebraska’s ability to win the Big Ten this year than he was entering last season.

“Last year we had a lot more question marks of how we would do,” he said. “But I think that also motivated us. It will be interesting to see what motivates us this year. They had something to prove that we’re the new guys in the league and let’s see what we can do."

Nebraska will try to make sure the poor performance against Iowa State does not repeat itself. Team captains Lauren Cook, Hannah Werth and Paige Hubl had a meeting on Monday to discuss what is needed to get the team back on track.

“I’m excited to start the Big Ten, but there is a lot of pressure,” Lauren Cook said. “We just came off a loss this weekend, and I think everyone is going to be looking to see how we rebound from that.”

Reach Brent C. Wagner at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com.

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