Big Ten Volleyball: Huskers, Nittany Lions remain unbeaten, others upset in early season games

LINCOLN — Early last week, the Big Ten was riding high as the undisputed top league in the college volleyball world with seven ranked teams and five in the top 10.

However, losses and upsets piled up this past weekend as most Big Ten teams struggled to maintain their lofty status. Only Penn State and Nebraska remain undefeated through two weeks of action.

“Across the board, there are more teams that think they can win,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “You better bring it every week and every match. It’s getting very competitive.”

In the new Top 25 poll released on Monday, the Big Ten still had seven teams ranked, but a bit of the shine has been taken off the conference.

Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois all began the season ranked in the top six, but now are 2-2 and sit at the bottom of the way-too-early-to-mean-anything conference standings.

Minnesota started the season ranked third but was upset during the first weekend by Florida State. The Gophers, now ranked eighth, lost to the new No. 3 team, Texas, on Wednesday before rebounding with a win over then-No. 7 Florida on Saturday.

“We had to figure some stuff out early in the first two weekends,’’ Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It felt like we’ve come a long way.”

No. 9 Wisconsin dropped a pair of matches at home to two of this year’s biggest risers, Marquette and Baylor. The Badgers were without redshirt senior opposite Madison Duello, their second-leading attacker in 2018.

“You don’t hit the panic button,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said according to the Wisconsin State Journal. “I think our team knows we’re a good team, but we didn’t play particularly well. It’s a long season. I think people are a little bit bummed tonight, but you get back to work.”

No. 14 Illinois lost a pair of matches in Iowa City as part of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge. After dropping a five-set match to No. 12 Washington on Friday, the Illini were swept by Colorado on Saturday.

“The reason why we’re playing a tougher schedule is to see what we’ve got out there and what we can and can’t do against good opponents,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas told the Champaign–Urbana News-Gazette after the Colorado loss.

Elsewhere, Michigan (4-2) fell 10 spots in the poll to No. 24 after dropping matches to Missouri and Dayton. Purdue (2-1) suffered its first loss of the year against Notre Dame and went from No. 18 to No. 23. The two teams just on the outside of the rankings last week, Iowa and Maryland, both dropped two matches and lost all of their votes.

Penn State (5-0) has been dominant so far without dropping a set, but the Nittany Lions face No. 1 Stanford on Friday.

The Huskers almost joined the list of upsets but rallied to defeat previously ranked San Diego in five sets on Saturday and remain at No. 2 this week. Nebraska (4-0) will also play the top-ranked Cardinal when they come to Lincoln next week.

Early-season scheduling is a tough balance between challenging the team, providing a measuring stick against good competition and preparing a team for the conference season. Cook said his approach for nonconference scheduling usually involves a road trip to the hometown of a player and then finding teams who will play the Huskers, which he said was the hardest part of scheduling.

NU has a tournament at TCU lined up for 2020, near the hometowns of sophomore Capri Davis and freshman Nicole Drewnick. The Huskers also will start a four-year agreement next year for home-and-home games against traditional powers Stanford, Louisville and Kentucky.

Cook said he likes it when the team faces adversity early in the season because it helps teach players resiliency.

“You can’t create that in practice,” Cook said. “You can tell them how great they are or how well they are doing, but you’re looking for big wins early in the year to help build that confidence.”

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