Penn State may have taken charge of the Big Ten race in recent weeks, but Nebraska made it known this past weekend that the conference crown would not be decided without a fight.
Nebraska had the daunting task of facing the Big Ten’s most difficult road trip while holding a tentative grasp on second place last week. In previous years the road trip to Columbus and University Park has been the conference’s most brutal weekend, but with Ohio State struggling this season, the back-to-back matches against Wisconsin and Minnesota have proven to be the league’s most challenging.
Friday night, the Huskers fell behind in Madison, and trailed 18-17 in set two, before going on an 8-2 run to close the set and tie the match. At the intermission, outside hitter Kelsey Robinson had just five kills, yet she would record 16 in the final two sets, and freshman left side Kadie Rolfzen would tie a career-high with 19 kills for the match to lift Nebraska to the win. The Huskers bounced back from one of their worst sets of the season, according to head coach John Cook, to win in four against the nation’s No. 16 team.
Sunday in Minneapolis, Nebraska would face a Gopher team that was unbeaten at home this season and just one match removed from second place. On Nov. 16, 2012, the Huskers faced a similar scenario as they visited the Sports Pavilion but a loss in five sets dropped Nebraska into a tie for second place and virtually out of contention for the Big Ten title.
Following an up-and-down first four sets in 2013’s version, the Gophers and Huskers would once again play a fifth set to decide second place in the conference. Kadie Rolfzen would record the first three points, and, despite a brief tie at 3-3, Nebraska would own the fifth set and earn its eighth win over a ranked team this season and improve to 4-1 in five-setters. The efforts of Robinson and Rolfzen would once again propel the Huskers, as Robinson finished with 23 kills, while Rolfzen set a new career mark with 20 kills. The defensive numbers also impressed for the pair, as both players would record double-doubles, with the senior contributing 18 digs and the freshman tallying 11.
Robinson showcased her exceptional six-rotation play throughout the match and on Monday was honored for the third time this season with the Big Ten Player of the Week award.
What separates Robinson from a lot of players is that she has a level of intensity that does not lift until the match is over. In talking with coaches and former players throughout the past few seasons, one point of emphasis has been trying to bring out the aggression in young women who have been taught to be nice all their lives. While there is nothing wrong with being nice, nice does not get the job done in a competitive atmosphere, such as Division I athletics. Robinson is a mature and friendly person off the court, but once the first serve is in play, there is nothing but focus from the Husker captain for the entirety of the match.
“I hate to lose, I hate giving up any points,” said Robinson. “It’s exhausting but it’s fun to compete that way because it does give you an advantage.”
With a team that features 10 newcomers, Nebraska has needed Robinson to not only carry the team’s attack but as the lone senior seeing significant playing time, Robinson has had to take on a good portion of the team’s leadership, as well.
“She’s had to learn to manage her game and how to manage a lot of other people,” said Cook. “I think she is evolving as a leader and doing a great job. She’s a competitor and she wants to win and sometimes with girls that doesn’t go over so well, but as coaches we love it.”
“She’s not warm and fuzzy, hug everybody and make everybody happy, it’s like, ‘This is the way we’re doing it; let’s go,’” Cook told the Journal Star earlier this year.
With six matches remaining and a regular-season finale matchup with Penn State looming, Nebraska hopes that Robinson and her teammates keep up of the level of play that has gotten a team of newcomers one match from first place in the nation’s toughest conference.
Live on BTN/BTN2Go this week:
No. 2 Penn State at No. 11 Minnesota – Saturday 8:30 ET
Can the Nittany Lions duplicate the feat accomplished by the Huskers and knock off Wisconsin and Minnesota on the road in consecutive matches? We’ll know Saturday night.
Penn State has hit .379 as a team since losing the first set to Michigan on November 1, and coming off three consecutive sweeps, it would appear that the Nittany Lions are playing at a different level than the rest of the conference. However, at Rec Hall earlier this season, Minnesota pushed Penn State to five sets and has shown that it is just a few points away from being in the conference’s top spot.
Tori Dixon had just seven kills against Nebraska for Minnesota, so look for her to be more involved this weekend. It will be interesting to see how Penn State’s left sides block Dixon on the slide play Saturday night – the Gopher senior had 17 kills in the first meeting. The Gophers will need to find a way to slow Deja McClendon, who has been outstanding as of late, averaging four kills per set and hitting .483 in her last three matches.
|About Mike Wolf||Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.|