LINCOLN, Neb. —Fresh off its victory over previously unbeaten and top-ranked Illinois, the Nebraska volleyball team moved to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time since October 2007 on Monday.
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There’s no time to celebrate.
The Cornhuskers are playing four-time defending national champion and No. 8 Penn State on the road Saturday, a night after they play at 23rd-ranked Ohio State.
“Each week we’ve been raising the bar,” coach John Cook said Monday. “They’re responding really well to those challenges. That’s how we’re getting better. This conference forces you to get better. Otherwise, you’re going to get a beatdown. Our players are really embracing that.”
Nebraska (17-1, 10-0 Big Ten) took sole possession of first place in the conference with its four-set win over the Illini (20-1, 9-1).
The Huskers moved up from No. 4 to the top of the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. California is second and Illinois is third.
Cook, who doesn’t vote in the poll, said he’s only concerned about where Nebraska stands in the RPI, the tool the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to set up the bracket. The Huskers remain No. 2 behind Illinois in this week’s RPI report.
“The computers decide that, not the coaches who vote on the AVCA thing,” Cook said. “I never worry about (the poll) nor do I care about that. I’ve seen teams this year, they lose and move up three spots, so it makes no sense.”
The win over Illinois was so pleasing to Cook that he gave his players a surprise day off Monday. He said they needed some time to recover from the grind of the first half of the Big Ten schedule, which has proved to be more taxing than what they experienced in the Big 12.
“There were matches last year where we thought if we just play well, we’ll be OK,” Cook said. “The teams in the Big Ten compete every night. They understand how to compete and they’re not afraid of who they’re playing. In the Big 12, there was kind of a pecking order of, `Let’s get it over with and move on.”’
Cook said he’s “shocked” by the rapid improvement of his team. The Huskers came back from two sets down to win their opener at New Mexico State, and they lost a five-setter at Colorado State a week later. They’ve won 15 in a row since.
“I still have nightmares about our first match against New Mexico State, how bad we were,” Cook said. “I was in shock then, too. I couldn’t believe this was a Nebraska team.”
Senior Brooke Delano said: “Definitely we thank Colorado State for beating us. We learned after that match how to fight in practice, how to come back and fight in games and that you can’t just beat a team two sets and be done with it. You have to play all three sets.”
The Huskers will be making their first trip to Penn State since 1998. The Nittany Lions (15-5, 8-2) are two games behind in the standings and have won eight of nine matches since losing a five-set match in Lincoln on Sept. 21.
“We’re all excited,” Delano said. “The atmosphere sounds like a great place to play. Everybody is going to want to beat us. We’ll have to focus in and get the job done.”