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Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook tries to treat each of the 20 matches the Huskers play in the Big Ten Conference season the same.

He wants to prepare the same way, and he wants to instill the message of playing hard every match to the team. 

“I got to treat everything the same because otherwise we’ll be all over the map,” Cook said.

Still, Saturday is different, when the second-ranked Huskers host No. 13 Wisconsin. The 7 p.m. match at the Devaney Sports Center will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

If a team is going to have a chance to win a talented Big Ten Conference, there are a small handful of matches each year of added importance. Right now, for Nebraska, those are matches against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State.

Of course, there are several other matches that can trip a team up and prevent a conference title. But in a league where sometimes the champion only has one or two losses, you want to take advantage when you have the chance to give a loss to one of the top teams, and that’s Wisconsin. And as challenging as it is to win on the road in the Big Ten, Nebraska will want to win a match like this in its home building.

Head volleyball coach John Cook talks about the road wins against Illinois and Northwestern and the upcoming game against Rutgers on Sept. 30, 2019.

In just the second week of the Big Ten season, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin are tied for the Big Ten lead at 3-0.

“I try to treat them all the same, but I can tell you our players and fans will be up for this,” Cook said. “I think we’ve had some great matches with Wisconsin. They know how good they are, they know the players. They beat us last year, so, yeah, it’s got a little extra motivation, I think.”

Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Wisconsin has done well against the Huskers. In the last five years, the Huskers are just 2-4 against the Badgers.

Wisconsin was pegged by a preseason poll of Big Ten coaches to win the league. Cook says that was because Wisconsin returned the most pieces from last season.

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“They graduated Tionna Williams, but Danielle Hart played last year, and she’s back,” Cook said. “So they basically returned their whole team and they picked up a good transfer from Minnesota (defensive specialist Lauren Barnes).”

Wisconsin (7-4) really challenged itself in the nonconference season and lost matches, but they were each against good teams, including now-No. 1 Baylor, Washington and Marquette.

But the Badgers looked awfully good on Wednesday while dominating the final 2½ sets in a four-set win against No. 5 Penn State.

“They’re legit,” said Cook of the Badgers. “With the amount of people they return, they should be expected to be one of the top teams in the country.”

The Badgers’ best player is Dana Rettke. She’s a 6-foot-8 junior middle blocker who earned first-team All-American honors her first two seasons.

This season Rettke leads the Badgers with 157 kills. It’s rare for a middle blocker to lead a team in kills. That says that not only is she good, but also the other players have the ability to get her the ball. And Wisconsin is able to set Rettke a lot after a dig, too, and not just in serve receive.

“They force the ball to her, which is great,” Cook said. “She’s so tall that there is a lot of room for error.”

Cook wasn’t surprised that Rettke was able to make the top team with the United States women’s national team this summer, including when the team played three matches in Lincoln. Next summer there is a chance Rettke could make the Olympic team.

“There’s not many 6-8 players like her in the world that can move and hit like her,” Cook said. “I think she was doing very well. You’d have to ask their coach, but I’ve heard she’s in the top four of the middles, so that means she’s got a really good shot to go.”

Wisconsin also has some good outside hitters with juniors Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg. Loberg had a career-high 21 kills with a .486 hitting percentage in the win against Penn State.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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