John Cook

Nebraska head volleyball coach John Cook talks with his team during a timeout in the match against Indiana at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Fifth-ranked Nebraska volleyball will enter its toughest stretch of the season starting this Saturday. The Huskers play their next three matches on the road all against top-10 opponents and all within a week of each other.

Nebraska will travel to No. 9 Penn State to kick off its road trip on Saturday, Oct. 13. The Huskers then pack their bags to make the trip to Madison, Wisconsin to face the eighth-ranked Badgers on Friday, Oct. 19. The following night, Saturday, Oct. 20, Nebraska will play No. 3 Minnesota in Minneapolis. None of the teams have lost a match at home this season.

So far in 2018, Nebraska is 1-2 in matches versus opponents ranked in the top 10 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll. The Huskers lost to then-No.5 Minnesota on Oct. 6, in the teams’ first matchup this year. The Huskers also lost to then-No. 7 Florida 3-1 in the opening game of the season. Nebraska’s silver lining is that its lone win over a top-10 foe came on the road. Nebraska defeated No. 7 Illinois 3-1 in Champaign, Illinois on Sept. 29.

Much like Nebraska, Penn State is a young team with eight freshmen on their roster. Two freshmen, setter Jonni Parker and middle blocker Serena Gray, have started every match for Penn State this season, while freshman middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord started 13 matches.

When asked about the youthfulness of Penn State’s roster and if they’re still as big a threat as normal, Cook had a simple answer.

“They’re still Penn State,” he said.

Wisconsin’s roster also skews toward the young side, but the Badgers are led by a group of sophomores. Sophomores setter Sydney Hilley, blocker Dana Rettke and outside hitter Molly Haggerty have started all 14 of Wisconsin’s matches this year. Fellow sophomore outside hitter Grace Loberg has been in the starting lineup in 13 games.

Rettke leads the Badgers on both offense and defense with 3.56 kills per set with a .407 hitting percentage and 1.56 blocks per set this year. Haggerty leads the team with 20 aces on the year.

The final opponent of the road trip, Minnesota, is another young team — 12 of its 18 players are freshmen or sophomores — but it hasn’t been playing like one. In their last seven matches, the Gophers have only dropped one set, which came against Nebraska in Minnesota’s 3-1 victory at the Devaney Center.

To fare better against the Gophers in round two, Nebraska will have to slow down freshman outside hitter Adanna Rollins. She finished with 17 kills in the match against Nebraska, her most in any match this season.

Cook said the road matches will be a test to find out a lot about his team.

“This is an opportunity, and we have to step up,” Cook said. “These teams are going to force us to play at another level. I’m looking forward to the challenge. I look forward to seeing what this team can do.”