Thursday, December 11, 2014

NCAA | Nebraska vs Washington is a big time volleyball rivalry

Five things to know about the Huskers as they arrive in Seattle
  • #12 BYU vs #8 Florida State| Fri, Dec 12 | 4:00PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • #11 Nebraska @ #3 Washington| Fri, Dec 12 | 6:30PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • Regional Final | Sat, Dec 13 | 8:30PM | Alaska Airlines Arena

see also: Sweet 16 ticket update and more Vansant news
see also: Impressive pedigrees for four volleyball teams headed to Seattle

Nebraska coach John Cook
-Nebraska Athletics

The Seahawks have the 49ers. The Mariners have the Yankees. The Sounders have the Galaxy. Washington football has Oregon. And Washington volleyball has Stanford.

Every team has a bitter league rival, a team they play every year, the one team they’d like to beat above all others. But few teams reach the playoffs regularly enough to also have a bitter playoff rival, a team it usually sees only in the postseason, an opponent that always seems to stand in the way of a championship.

Washington volleyball has Nebraska.

For the fifth time since 2005, when the Huskies upset the Huskers 3-0 to win the National Championship, the two teams will play a match Friday that will end one season and propel another to the Elite 8. Again.

The last time they met—a 2012 Nebraska Sweet 16 sweep in Omaha—the Huskers were a radically different team. Only one current Nebraska player, junior middle blocker Meghan Haggerty, saw action in that match. By contrast, five current Huskies—senior Krista Vansant, senior Kaleigh Nelson, junior Melanie Wade, junior Cassie Strickland and junior Katy Beals—played in all three sets (Beals will miss the rest of the 2014 Tournament with a knee injury).

So, who is this 2014 Huskers team that will once again square off against Washington in a loser-goes-home match? Here are five things you should know.

Nebraska setter Mary Pollmiller (16) attacks against Utah last Saturday
-Nebraska Athletics

Mary Pollmiller is the only senior on Nebraska’s roster (Washington has two seniors, Nelson and Vansant.) But the 5-10 Colorado native has only been in Lincoln for two seasons.

As a high school sophomore, Pollmiller attended an epic match: UCLA beat Nebraska before a record regular-season crowd of nearly 14,000. Nebraska coach John Cook’s daughter, Lauren Cook, was the Bruins’ setter—she would later transfer to the Huskers. After that UCLA match, Pollmiller declined to commit to Nebraska, and waited until she was a high school senior to sign instead with Tennessee.

But two seasons in Knoxville were enough. The Vols granted Pollmiller a release, opening the door for Cook to give her another chance. It all worked out. In a conference featuring stellar setters like Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini and Penn State’s Micha Hancock, Pollmiller still made the All-Big Ten team, earning Honorable Mention this year.

Nebraska runs a 5-1 (one setter) offense, and Pollmiller makes the most of her three rotations on the front row. In 31 matches, she’s attacked 286 times for 111 kills and just 22 errors; most of her attacks are setter dumps on the second ball. In last Saturday’s Round 2 win against Utah, Pollmiller tallied a career-best ten kills, including the first and last kills of the decisive fifth set.

Despite having a big arm, junior outside hitter Kelsey Fien had trouble with being blocked. Early in the season, she sat on the bench, but worked in training to develop a wider range of shots. Halfway through the season, she earned a spot in the lineup, and has been a force ever since, even earning a place on the All-Big Ten First Team. Like Pollmiller, she had the best night of her career just last weekend, with 19 kills on 50 swings in the 3-2 win against Utah.

Kadie and Amber Rolfzen are twins. They’re both 6-3 sophomores; Kadie usually serves right after Amber in the rotation. But in many ways, the two are quite different. Amber hits on the right side, and makes her biggest impact as a blocker (.093 blocks/set). Kadie is an outside hitter, and leads the team with 3.56 kills/set. Kadie plays all six rotations, and is the favorite target of most opposing servers.

Nebraska's Kadie Rolfzen
-Nebraska Athletics

Nebraska’s most glaring weakness, however, may be its passing, which has kept the Huskers out-of-system at key points of close matches. Servers try to stay away from libero Justine Wong-Orantes, and can sometimes rattle Kadie or sophomore outside hitter Annika Albrecht.

Nebraska went 14-6 in the Big Ten, and is 22-9 overall. Not since 1981—33 seasons ago—have the Huskers lost 8 or more matches in a season.

But consider the losses: 3-0 to Stanford (the NCAA Tournament’s #1 seed), 3-2 to Texas (the #2 seed), 3-0 Wisconsin (#4 seed), 3-0 to Penn State (#5 seed), 3-1 to Florida State (#8 seed), 3-1 and 3-2 to Illinois (#9 seed). They lost 3-2 to Ohio State, a team currently in the Sweet 16. Their only “bad” loss may have been 3-0 to Michigan, which did not make the tournament this season.

On the flip side, Nebraska had a 3-1 victory against Penn State, and beat tournament team Michigan State twice.

Nebraska coach John Cook
-Nebraska Athletics
John Cook has been in the Midwest so long, it may surprise some to learn that he’s a California guy. Growing up in San Diego, football was his first love. “I started coaching football,” he told Volleyblog Seattle in a 2012 interview. “That’s all I wanted to do, is coach football.”

I had no exposure to volleyball until I moved down to Mission Beach,” Cook remembered. “Every day after 3 o’clock, I saw two retired teachers down there playing sand volleyball. So, I asked them, What are you guys doing? What is this game?

Cook was drawn to the sport, particularly the fact that—unlike football—every player had to master every skill. The woman he would later marry, Wendy, was a two-time All-American setter at San Diego State, which all but sealed his love of volleyball. But his first volleyball coaching experience was rocky.

“I started coaching girls’ volleyball at Francis Parker High School. This was in 1982, and girls had just started playing volleyball. They cried every day. I was a football coach, so I didn’t know anything different. It was not a good match. But we were winning.”

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin also grew up in Southern California (Santa Monica), and also traded football for volleyball. Both Cook and McLaughlin spent time early in their coaching careers with the US Men’s National Team. In 1999, Cook was a Nebraska assistant when Kansas State—a team that had never beaten the Huskers—came to Lincoln. Nebraska lost. The head coach of that Kansas State team? Jim McLaughlin.

As opposing head coaches, the two have met four times, with each winning twice. McLaughlin’s Huskies won in 2005 (in the national championship match) and in 2010 (the Sweet 16). Cook’s Huskers won in 2008 (Elite 8) and 2012 (Sweet 16).

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  1. Man I just detest setters dumping the ball on two, maybe because we can't do it in a 6-2. I know it is part of the game but I just have visions of Madi Bugg and Micha Hancock. Both great players but who also dump the ball a lot.

    Let's do this Dawgs!

  2. John Cook better be on his best behavior

    1. Looks like jimmy walked off the floor without shaking hands. Nice Job!

  3. I like active front row setters, but I'll take Courtney & Crissy's 207-kills and 113-blocks over Mary Pollmiller's 111-kills and 81-blocks. Go Dawgs!


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