VB preview

Nicklin Hames (1) sets the ball during the game against Iowa at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

A trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin during the winter never sounds enticing for anyone — except for the Huskers. This week, the Huskers will go up to the cold north for two matches against two top-10 teams.

If there is one team that has Nebraska’s number, it is the No. 7 Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Huskers have not won in Minneapolis since 2014 and are just 2-4 against the Gophers since that 2014 match.

Last season, the Gophers won both matches in four sets against the Huskers. Minnesota’s offense was the deciding factor and it returns five of the six players who had kills in those matchups. The experienced Gophers are led by junior outside hitter Stephanie Samedy and senior outside hitter Alexis Hart.

The duo combined for at least 20 kills in both 2018 matches and with returning both of its middle blockers, Minnesota’s offense returns almost all its production from last year. The Gophers’ offense has been one of the Big Ten’s best despite senior setter Kylie Miller’s injury.

Miller has not played since mid-October which has forced the Gophers to run a different offensive system with two setters on the court a majority of the time. Those two setters are both freshmen, which is where the Huskers must capitalize.

Passing and serving are the lifelines for every Husker team and this upcoming weekend will need them to be taken up a notch. Serving has been one of Nebraska’s struggles, both defending and receiving.

“Serving and passing is a mindset,” head coach John Cook said. “It’s the willing ball to a target and trying to will that pass on somebody else.”

Free points are only a part of why serving is important but also to get Minnesota out-of-system right away. With two freshmen setters, Nebraska has to get those setters to make bad passes and relieve some stress for the Husker defense.

Passing is the other key part for the Huskers and is the most important aspect to win for Nebraska. The passing begins with digs from freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles, junior outside hitter Lexi Sun and freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik.

Those three have a tall task of not just defending the Gophers’ attacks but also setting up the offense right away. If those three can dig consistently, that opens up sophomore setter Nicklin Hames to run the offense.

Hames has led the Husker offense to the top of the Big Ten as she averages over 11 assists per set. That is second-best in the conference and gives Nebraska a distinct advantage at setter. 

“The Big Ten title, there’s a race for it so these two games have a little bit more priority,” Hames said. “We’re just going to go out there and be ourselves, battle hard and see where that takes us.”

The battle between the two schools will be for more than bragging rights. The winner keeps themselves in the conference title picture and could also determine between staying at home or going on the road for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Sitting atop the Big Ten standings are the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers are 15-1 in conference play and have beaten Minnesota twice, Penn State once and swept the Huskers at the Devaney Center. 

Nebraska was swept despite hitting .336 against the Badgers, marking Cook’s first-ever loss when his team hit above .300. The stunning loss was due to an inability to play well in the final points for each set.

The inability to perform in the clutch was also a wake-up call for the Huskers. On defense, only one team has hit above .200 since the Huskers allowed a .376 performance from the Badgers. The great play by the defense since then will not matter if it cannot contain the Badgers’ hitting.

Junior middle blocker Dana Rettke has been a nightmare for defenders this season. The 6-foot-8 middle blocker is one of the most efficient hitters and the kills leader for Wisconsin.

Her unique spot gives both sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach and junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins their biggest test yet.The middle blockers will need to follow where Rettke goes along with disrupting hitting chances from the rest of the Badgers’ offense.

Nebraska’s defense is rarely a weak link for any of Cook’s team but this Sunday, the defense is the difference between a crucial win and another loss.

One factor that can work against the Huskers is that they play Wisconsin this Sunday with only one day of rest after a top-10 match.

The biggest weekend of the season comes with the biggest ramifications of the year. All three of these teams will make the NCAA Tournament but the seeding will be greatly affected. If Nebraska wins both, it should sit atop the Big Ten and potentially claim a top-four seed in the postseason.

“We’re getting Final Four territory here. I mean these are some big weekends and big matches,” Cook said. “I’m hopeful that this brings out the best in our team.”