KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In concocting the recipe each year for Nebraska volleyball to play among the nation’s elite programs, John Cook relies on more than a dash of this and sprinkle of that.
Winning big matches, hoisting conference championship banners and celebrating amid confetti a national title require precise measurements. A winning formula.
Who to recruit? How to train? What system to employ?
The ingredients must come together in just the right way if you’re going to eat at the same table with seven-time NCAA titlist Penn State.
“They’ve been the measuring stick for us on how we build our program,” Cook said Wednesday, preparing to face the Nittany Lions in the national semifinals. “How we look at it is, ‘Can we beat Penn State?’”
Huskers-Nittany Lions is Nebraska-Oklahoma football from the glory days, with a net to keep the two teams separated. Rivals with plenty of respect for the other side, but an intense hunger to beat them.
The volleyball rivalry is now two generations old, fueled in its early days by Nebraska postseason wins in 1982, ’85 and ’86 in Lincoln.
The legendary 1996 match lives on YouTube, and even those crammed into the Coliseum that night could probably look at it again and shake their heads at how the Huskers rallied to win 20-18 in the fifth set.
Those are bad memories for the team from Happy Valley, but Penn State has been best on the biggest stage. The Nittany Lions beat Nebraska in the Final Four in 1998, and again in 2008, the latter time to protect an unbeaten season threatened by a raucous crowd in Omaha.
Now these volleyball powerhouses live in the same conference. Realignment has brought us annual Big Ten showdowns with an occasional postseason match mixed in. In last year’s NCAA regional, Nebraska trailed 2-0 in sets and faced two match points before coming back to win.
Epics, said Cook, describing the Nebraska-Penn State matches that have been replayed as flashbacks for coaches, players and fans this week.
“Ever since I’ve been here, and I’ve been old enough to understand Nebraska volleyball, that’s been a great match,” All-America setter Kelly Hunter said.
Hunter, a second-generation Husker, spoke at a Wednesday news conference in Kansas City, where Nebraska will make its third straight appearance in the Final Four.
Nebraska won the national title in 2015, its fourth championship. Penn State’s last title was in 2014.
That both are at Sprint Center this week, looking to unseat 2016 champion Stanford, can of course be traced to the latest chapter in the Nebraska-Penn State history book.
The Huskers’ three-set win at Penn State on Sept. 22 turned around Nebraska’s campaign, coming on the heels of a shocking loss to Northern Iowa.
“The wheels had come off,” Cook said, but quickly adding that you often learn more from a loss.
That’s certainly true for Penn State, which hasn’t lost since facing the Huskers. That's 23 straight wins, and a share of the Big Ten title.
“As leaders, we kind of took what Coach (Russ Rose) has said to us in the past to heart, that you can’t let a loss beat you twice,” said Penn State All-American Haleigh Washington. “I think we responded relatively well.”
For Penn State, the measuring stick in the rematch will be meddling with Nebraska’s ability to excel in serving and passing.
Tough serves took much of the steam from the Nittany Lions’ potent offense earlier this year. Penn State, led by Washington, is hitting .345 this season, better than any major college team in four years. But against Nebraska, Penn State hit .227.
The Huskers, meanwhile, hummed at a .347 clip, well above their season mark of .285.
The match opened eyes that Annika Albrecht could be a major weapon for NU, but also included hitting highlights from Briana Holman, Lauren Stivrins and Mikaela Foecke.
“It’s hard to defend teams like that,” said Holman, noting Nebraska’s recent success against Penn State. “They really have to wait and read on us because we have so many offensive weapons.”
Remarkably, the win in State College was Nebraska’s sixth straight over Penn State in the series. Six wins in 2015, ’16 and ’17 against volleyball’s premier program of the past 10 years.
Rose, a former Nebraska assistant, said there’s no going back in history. He’ll prepare the same way he always does for a match, in this case reviewing where the Huskers could cause his team discomfort.
Presumably, that’s where the Huskers, too, are focused.
“At some point during the season you have to have some significant wins to validate everything you’ve been working on,” Cook said.
Thursday’s winner will be one win from validating a season with a national championship.
For Nebraska, that Penn State is the measuring stick is the perfect formula.