Wisconsin vs. Nebraska, 9.30.2017

Nebraska has won five-straight matches since a loss to Northern Iowa on Sept. 16, including three victories over top-10 opponents.

KAYLA WOLF, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook is as surprised as others are in what the Huskers have accomplished over the past two weeks in defeating three teams ranked in the top-10.

“I think three weeks ago we were in Omaha getting smoked by Northern Iowa. So, no, I did not see this coming,” Cook said.

During the first two weeks of the conference season the Huskers defeated then-No. 2 Penn State, No. 3 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin.

The Huskers’ five-match winning streak comes after a surprising loss against then-unranked and now No. 21 Northern Iowa in a tournament at UNO. It was an early afternoon match, and a Husker team with lots of players in jobs they didn’t have last season wasn't ready.

While surprised by what the Huskers have done since, Cook said he knew NU was getting better, and it’s made an impact that All-American setter Kelly Hunter is returning to form after missing a lot of practice in the preseason due to an injury.

A big weekend for Nebraska (11-3) got rewarded Monday when the Huskers jumped four spots to No. 4 in the AVCA poll. That’s the Huskers’ highest ranking this season, and comes two weeks after dropping to a season-low 14th in the poll.

Cook was impressed that the Huskers found a way to win on Saturday against Wisconsin. In a three-set win against Minnesota on Friday, Cook said the Huskers were “humming,” but against Wisconsin it was more of a struggle. NU fell behind 0-2 before rallying to win in five sets.

From that match, Cook learned that this team is mentally tough.

“I’m pretty amazed at what they’ve done,” Cook said.

And while the Big Ten season is only two weeks old, the Huskers at least gave themselves a chance to be a part of the race for the conference championship with a 4-0 start while playing a demanding schedule. Nebraska is tied with Michigan State for first place in the league standings. And the Huskers have already cleared what Cook says may be the hardest week in the Big Ten, playing Minnesota and Wisconsin back-to-back.

In the preseason poll, Penn State was picked to finish first by the league coaches, and Minnesota was third. The Huskers are already done playing those teams this season, and the second half of the league season should be easier for the Huskers than the start. Nebraska and Wisconsin will play again on Oct. 11.

But another big match comes on Wednesday, when league leaders Nebraska and Michigan State play in Lincoln.

“It just keeps getting bigger every week, and obviously Wednesday night is a pretty important match,” Cook said.

Michigan State was unranked when it began the conference season, but following wins against Minnesota and Wisconsin, has moved up to No. 14.

Cook is very impressed with the Spartans.

“They’ve got a lot of seniors who we’ve been playing against,” he said. “I go back to 2014 and it’s the same players in our scouting reports. They’re all seniors now, they’re physical, they have three jump servers, and they really bring a lot of pressure from the service line.”

Townsend excels: Cook has been very impressed with the play of Sydney Townsend, a senior defensive specialist from Lincoln.

She was one of the Huskers’ best players in the win against Minnesota, with a career-high 17 digs and two ace serves.

“Sydney played probably the best match of her life,” Cook said.

After losing the first two sets, Cook changed the rotation to have Townsend serve first, and she promptly got the Huskers’ comeback started by serving two aces to start the set.

Larson jersey retirement: Cook thinks it’s important to honor the history of the program and its players, and Nebraska did so last week when it retired the jersey of three-time All-American and current U.S. national team player Jordan Larson.

She was honored during the intermission of Friday’s match. Several former players also attended a reception that evening.

“You can see how much it meant to her, that’s the biggest thing,” Cook said. “She was having to breathe just to control her emotions, so you can tell how much that meant to her.”

Larson attended one of the Huskers’ practices last week, but did not participate. Now she’s in Istanbul, Turkey, preparing for her professional season.

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