A stretch of losses can cause even a four-time national champion coach to question himself.
That’s where Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook was at when the Huskers had a 3-5 record in October, even though each of the losses came against a top-10 ranked team.
That’s why Cook says the Huskers’ five-set win against No. 7 Penn State to start November was needed for the morale of the team.
“It was getting discouraging, and it starts placing doubt, especially in (seniors Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke), and you start to question everything. I’m questioning everything, and myself,” Cook said.
Nebraska was still a top-10 team during its stretch of losses, but it didn’t always feel that way. Why was Cook questioning himself?
“You always question yourself when you’re not being successful,” Cook said. “I’m questioning if I’m training them right, am I doing everything right, is there something else I’m not thinking about, or is there some way we can be better? That’s just the life of a coach.”
In October, Nebraska played teams that are now ranked third, fourth, seventh and eighth. Cook thought those matches would make the Huskers a better team. But the Huskers really needed a big win to validate the hard work they’d put in, Cook said.
After losing five-set matches against Penn State and Wisconsin, Nebraska was better prepared when it went to a fifth set against Penn State.
“I think that’s what we’ve learned is you got to be resilient, and it’s going to be a long night and you just have to battle and battle,” Cook said.
Now the Huskers know they can win a match against the best teams, middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said.
“We’ve kind of just been letting a few points here and there slip through our fingers in crucial moments, so it was nice to see our team fight back,” Stivrins said. “It kind of shows us what we’re capable of, and where we can go from there.”
In Nebraska’s first match against Penn State this season, Nebraska lost the fifth set 15-9. This time against Penn State, Nebraska won the fifth set 15-8, and Cook sees that as a sign of the progress.
Over the final two sets the Huskers outhit Penn State .291 to .041.
“We imposed our will on them, and played great volleyball,” Cook said.
On Wednesday the sixth-ranked Huskers play at Iowa, a team the Huskers beat in four sets last month.
To-do list: With three weeks left before the NCAA Tournament, Cook has some priorities for how he’d like to improve.
While he’ll always emphasize defense, the Huskers are good there, holding opponents to an average hitting percentage of .131.
But Cook wants to be more productive on offense, and thinks the Huskers can get more from right-side hitter Jazz Sweet (.208 hitting percentage), outside hitter Lexi Sun (.166 hitting) and middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach (.303 hitting).
“Jazz and Lexi got to hit for higher numbers and less errors; Callie has got to get more than one kill a game,” Cook said. “And if we can get (setter Nicklin Hames') decisions and location a little bit better, which I think we can, those are probably the three main areas.”
Assist from the fans: Give the assist for a video review challenge that Cook won during last week’s win against Rutgers to the Nebraska fans. The line judge called a shot by Sweet out. Before the next rally the replay was shown on the video screen at the Devaney Sports Center, and the crowd roared that the shot was in. That’s when Cook perked up and challenged the play.
Cook will sometimes trust the players when they tell him to review a play. This time he trusted the fans.
“It was a team effort,” he said.