The Rally: No. 11 Nebraska Volleyball with opportunity to win Big Ten title
This is it.
No. 11 Nebraska Volleyball has a chance to win the Big Ten championship but has to beat two of the conference's best teams: No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Purdue.
Husker Head Coach John Cook said this season is one of the most competitive he has seen in the Big Ten.
So what is it going to take to win the crown in the best all-around volleyball conference in the country? Cook said win two-point sets, which Nebraska struggled with against Wisconsin and Ohio State earlier this season.
Outside hitter Madi Kubik said the Big Ten Champ will have the best serving and floor defense, two qualities Nebraska hangs their hat on.
The Huskers will aim to do all these things at Wisconsin on Friday at 4:30 p.m. on BTN and at Purdue on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. on BTN.
Here is a full breakdown of Nebraska’s opponents and what is on the line:
Scouting the Opponents:
No. 5 Wisconsin (23-3, 15-3):
The Badgers will be riding high after outlasting then-No. 9 Minnesota in a five-hour, five-set thriller (24-26, 25-19, 25,27, 28-26, 15-12). Wisconsin hit .277 including over .300 in the last three sets.
Purdue has shocked Wisconsin twice this season and defeated them 3-1 both times. Maryland (19-11, 7-11) upset the Badgers in five sets in their first Big Ten match. In all three of these matches, Wisconsin hit below .200 including .128 against Purdue on Nov. 12.
Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in hitting percentage (.290) and kills per set (14.76). They are No. 2 in assists per set with 13.53. Ohio State leads the conference with 13.68 assists.
The Badgers swept Nebraska on Oct. 27 in the Devaney Sports Center (26-24, 25-19, 25-23). Wisconsin hit .229 and held the Huskers to a .148 clip, their third-lowest hitting percentage of the season. Freshman middle blocker Anna Smrek had a career-best game with 12 kills and a .647 hitting percentage.
No. 6 Purdue (22-5, 14-4):
The Boilermakers are looking to capture their first Big Ten championship since 1985 and their fifth title overall.
Purdue is on an eight-game winning streak and plays Indiana before Nebraska, making them likely to enter their battle with the Huskers on a nine-game streak.
They are ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten in blocks per set (2.93) and No. 4 in the country. Purdue has three players with over 90 blocks this season. Maryland and Rainelle Jones, the best blocker in the country with 1.64 blocks per set, are No. 1 in the conference.
Huskers handled the Boilermakers in four sets (23-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-21) on Oct. 23. Purdue hit .123, their lowest hitting percentage of the season. Nebraska had 70 digs, which is 17.5 digs per set. Libero Lexi Rodriguez had 24 digs.
Players to watch:
Dana Rettke, Wisconsin:
Six-year senior Dana Rettke is one of the best middle blockers in the country. She ranks No. 4 in the NCAA Division I volleyball teams and leads the Big Ten with a .447 hitting percentage. The 6-foot-8 athlete helped Wisconsin to a team .291 hitting percentage, the eighth-best in the country.
The four-time AVCA First-Team All-American ranks No. 12 in the country with 1.36 blocks per set. Rettke has a team-high 126 blocks with 19 solo blocks.
Most recently in the Badgers victory over Minnesota, the 2019-20 Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year scored a season-high 27 points with 21 kills, nine blocks and hit .372.
Against the Huskers earlier this season, Rettke had 11 kills, hit .308 and got four blocks.
Sydney Hilley, Wisconsin:
Six-year senior Sydney Hilley was named the Big Ten Setter of the Week after 65 assists and 16 digs against Minnesota and 53 assists and 11 digs in a four-set win over Michigan State. The 6-foot-0 setter has earned five Setter of the Week awards this season and 17 in her career.
The two-time AVCA First-Team All-American is one of the best setters in the country and leads the NCAA Division I schools with 12.05 assists per set.
Against the Huskers in October, Hilley had 37 assists, which is above her average assists per set, and 16 digs. She also had three setter dumps and one block.
Devyn Robinson, Wisconsin:
Last season as a freshman, middle blocker Devyn Robinson was named a 2020 First-Team All-Big Ten and a 2020 AVCA Third-Team All-American.
As a sophomore, the 6-foot-2 Iowa native ranks No. 9 in the Big Ten with a .349 hitting percentage. She has 227 kills, averaging 2.47 per set and 81 blocks.
Robinson had 13 kills, hit .417 and recorded four blocks against Minnesota. Against the Huskers, she had five kills, hit .176 and five blocks before she was replaced by Smrek.
Caitlyn Newton, Purdue:
Outside hitter Caitlyn Newton leads the team with 397 kills and averages 3.97 kills per set, the fourth highest in the Big Ten. She is ranked No. 10 in the conference with .31 service aces per set. Newton is tied for the second-best scorer in the Big Ten with 4.60 points per set.
In her last game which was against Northwestern, Newton had 21 kills and hit .364 in four sets. Against Wisconsin, the 2020-21 AVCA Third-Team All-American had a combined 36 kills in the two matches and hit .214 in the second match.
In Lincoln, Newton had 16 kills but 11 errors bring her hitting percentage down to .096, one of her lowest of the season.
Grace Cleveland, Purdue:
6-foot-3 outside hitter Grace Cleveland was named a ACVA First-Team All-American for the 2020-21 season. This season, she has second-most kills on the team (312) and is hitting .278. Cleveland has a team-high 114 blocks and 99 digs.
She hit an average of .267 against Michigan and Northwestern last week and contributed nine total blocks. In Purdue’s first victory over the Badgers, Cleveland had 15 kills, hit .300 and added seven blocks.
Versus the Huskers, the 2020 First Team All-Big Ten selection has seven kills, six blocks and hit the highest of Purdue’s hitters with a .188 clip.
Jena Otec, Purdue:
Libero Jena Otec was named Purdue’s first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award in the spring season and has since won two more this season.
Otec has 462 digs and averages 4.57 digs per set, the fourth-most in the Big Ten. The senior had a season-high 33 digs in four sets against Michigan on Nov. 19.
Against the Huskers, Otec had 25 digs of Purdue’s 62 total digs. She added four assists and has the second-most assists on the team behind setter Hayley Bush.
In Nebraska’s last match, they held then-No. 15 Penn State to a .088 hitting percentage, their lowest of the season.
The Huskers had 56 digs in three sets to shut down the Nittany Lions’ hitters. Nebraska averaged 18.67 digs per set and had three players with double-digit digs. Setter Nicklin Hames led the group with 14 digs. Rodriguez and defensive specialist Keonilei Akana had 13 digs.
Nebraska served better statistically against Penn State and put pressure on them, forcing the Nittany Lions out-of-system and getting a lot of free balls sent over. The Huskers had four service aces and six errors.
The servicing helped keep in check Penn State’s Kaitlyn Hord, who averaged 2.97 kills per set before coming to Lincoln. Hord had five kills against Nebraska with four in the third set.
Against Wisconsin earlier this season, Nebraska didn’t service an ace. That was the first time this season that the Huskers didn’t get an ace in a match.
Over the last six matches, Nebraska’s aces to error ratio is 1 to 2. For every ace, they serve two errors.
Cook and his players always tell the media how important serving tough is to their success. However, the Huskers had a total of 33 service errors against Minnesota, Ohio State and Indiana.
Nebraska will continue to put pressure on great serving to throw off their opponents, especially as the opponents get better and the stakes get higher.
The question is can they “thump the ball” as well as they aim to in the moments where it is the most necessary.
The NCAA Committee will announce the seeds for the NCAA volleyball tournament on Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. The committee bases a large part of its decisions on the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rankings but it is not its only decision-making tool.
The RPI takes into account a team's wins, losses and the strength of their schedule.
Nebraska is outside of the top 10 at No. 13 with Creighton ahead of them at No. 12.
The Huskers have a chance to beat No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 8 Purdue to boost their RPI score this week.
The current teams in the top 10 are:
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Big Ten Standings:
The Big Ten champion will be crowned this week. Let’s take a look at the possibilities for the five teams still within reach.
Nebraska and Wisconsin are tied for first place in the Big Ten. They play each other on Friday and the loser will have a much longer shot at the title.
The Huskers turn around and play Purdue, which is in second place with a 14-4 Big Ten record. The Boilermakers will likely beat Indiana on Friday, making them 15-4 heading into the matchup. If Nebraska beats Wisconsin, they will be 16-3, and with a loss to Purdue, both teams would have a 16-4 record.
The Badgers also play Indiana and will probably win, so if Nebraska loses both games the title is out of reach.
No. 9 Ohio State and No. 10 Minnesota are still in contention with 13-5 records. The Buckeyes play Rutgers and Maryland, meaning they will likely finish the season 15-5. However, the Golden Gophers battle No. 15 Penn State Friday in College Park.
Nebraska has the opportunity to win the Big Ten outright but has to take down two of the league’s best teams.
Maggie Mendelson inks with Nebraska Volleyball and Women’s Basketball:
Mendelson is a 6-foot-5 middle blocker and a post in basketball. She is the only recruit in the country to play on the U.S. youth national teams in both volleyball and basketball.
She flew from North Ogden, Utah with her parents to surprise Volleyball Head Coach John Cook and Women’s Basketball Head Coach Amy Williams by committing in-person over the weekend.
Mendelson, who played for Fremont High School in Utah, was the No. 2 volleyball recruit in the 2023 class before reclassifying to the class of 2022. As for basketball, she was named the No. 32 recruit by ESPN and the No. 6 post in the country.
Cook and Williams both said they worked together to recruit Mendelson and develop a plan that would allow her to play both volleyball and basketball and keep her physically healthy while doing so.
Mendelson added her name along with the Huskers' three other volleyball 2022 signees: middle blocker Bekka Allick, outside hitter Hayden Kubik and walk-on setter Maisie Boesiger.