Although it's not quite the mid-season in B1G Conference play (they've played nine games with eleven to go), it's a good time to talk some Husker volleyball. After the dismantling of Iowa in straight sets on Wednesday night, they currently sit at 16-2 overall, 8-1 in conference play, with the two losses coming at Iowa St. and at Penn St. in consecutive matches in September. They are ranked fourth in the nation, and had spent three weeks in the #1 spot. The Penn St. juggernaut sits atop the conference and nation at 9-0 and 19-1 overall. Mark your calendar: Penn St. visits the Coliseum Sunday, October 28th, at 2:00pm.
I will preface this article by saying I'm not an expert in volleyball, nor have I ever made it to a match in the Coliseum. Those tickets are harder to get than football. I have seen them in Omaha on numerous occasions and watch on TV as often as they're on NET or the BTN, and I try to tune in to the radio broadcasts. That being said, next to the football program, in my opinion this is the jewel program of Nebraska athletics.
The SEC may have a stranglehold on college football, but the B1G is doing everything it can to rival the PAC 12 for volleyball supremacy. The PAC 12 is a bit more top heavy, as they currently occupy five of the top ten in the rankings (Stanford, Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and USC), but I think the B1G is a deeper league with six in the top 25 (Penn St., Nebraska, Minnesota, Purdue, Ohio St., and Illinois), with Michigan St. and Michigan receiving multiple votes and sitting just on the outside of the top 25.
The Cornhuskers are tied for fourth nationally in hitting percentage and 15th in kills per set, which is significant since Nebraska is also fierce defensively, particularly in blocking as they sit at 19th in blocks per set.
Coach John Cook, who in my completely biased opinion is one of the top three coaches in volleyball, has numerous weapons in his arsenal. Out of the many contributors, I just want to highlight four. Three are seniors and one is a freshman.
1. Hannah Werth, Senior outside-hitter
She comes from a very athletic and talented family. As I was in Washington D.C. last week, I think I told everyone with a Nationals hat on that Jason Werth, who hit the dramatic walk-off homerun last Thursday to force a game five vs. the Cardinals, has a sister who is a senior volleyball player at the University of Nebraska.
I've been enamored with Hannah's pure power and strength since her impressive freshman season. She has had a great career and hopefully can lead the team on a deep postseason run. She is an incredible defender, leading the team in digs, as well as a dominant attacker, averaging just over three kills per set, second on the team to Gina Mancuso.
2. Gina Mancuso, Senior outside-hitter
The Mancuso name is revered in Nebraska volleyball circles, and for good reason. Hailing from Omaha, Dani Mancuso, Gina's older sister, was a force in the mid 2000's and helped lead Nebraska to their last National Title in 2006. Gina is only adding to that legacy, as she was a 1st team All-American last year and is continuing her high level of play this year, leading the team in kills per set and service aces. If I were on the opposite side of the net when Gina or Hannah went up for a kill, I think I would just curl into the fetal position and cover my head. Gina can take over matches with her impressive hitting skills.
3. Lauren Cook, Senior setter
Lauren was the National Freshman of the Year at UCLA before deciding to transfer back home and play for her dad and the Cornhuskers. She has been one of the top setters in the nation in her collegiate career, earning Honorable Mention All-American last year. Her sets are impeccable, and she keeps the opponents off balance with her quick decision-making and precise actions, including the occasional dump across the net. Along with her 11.26 assists per set, she is second on the team in digs. When Nebraska is in-system with Lauren able to set to multiple weapons, the offense is extremely difficult to defend.
4. Meghan Haggerty, Freshman middle-blocker
Meghan had originally committed to Wisconsin before having a change of heart and coming to Nebraska. What a coup it was for John Cook. She has played a prominent role for the Cornhuskers so far this year, hitting a scorching .395, fourth in total kills, and second to Hayley Thramer in total blocks. She will be a dominant fixture for Nebraska for the next four years.
Overall, this team has the senior leadership and overall talent to defend their B1G title and make a run at the National Championship. At the mid-season point, they have established themselves, along with Penn St., as the class of the conference, which really isn't a surprise. After their shocking early exit in last year's postseason, look for that to fuel them in the second half of 2012 and into this year's postseason run as they try to make it to the Final Four in Louisville, KY, December 13th and 15th.