Illinois vs. Nebraska: It's on!

Illinois vs. Nebraska: It's on!

Ask Jeff Huth about this weekend's matches here.

The No. 3 Illinois volleyball team puts its second-highest ranking ever to the test this weekend at the Ameritas Players Challenge in Lincoln, Neb. After facing Western Michigan and No. 20 Dayton today, the biggest challenge of the Challenge awaits: No. 7 Nebraska at 7 p.m. Saturday. Staff writer JEFF HUTH offers five storylines for this much-anticipated matchup.

Getting acquainted

Consider this a preview to what soon will be an annual matchup between the Illini and Cornhuskers. With Nebraska joining the Big Ten in 2011, one of the historically great volleyball programs will join an already-formidable conference. The Cornhuskers have won three NCAA titles, reached the Final Four 11 times, been ranked No. 1 a total of 81 weeks, and are working on a streak of 28 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. When it was announced that Nebraska was leaving the Big 12 to become the Big Ten's 12th member, the focus was rightly on the Cornhuskers' powerhouse football program and what it would mean to Jim Delany's league. Although Nebraska volleyball has a much shorter history, be assured its impact on the Big Ten will be at least as great. Although future Big Ten volleyball schedule details have yet to be finalized, the Illini and Cornhuskers are guaranteed of at least one meeting (and more often two) per season.

Join the Crowd

The Illini's visit is such a big deal that the host Cornhuskers have moved the matchup from their home court, the 4,300-seat Nebraska Coliseum, to the Devaney Sports Center. That venue, home of Huskers basketball, lists a seating capacity of 13,595. Even that's not enough, however, to satisfy NU's rabid volleyball fan base. A year ago, Nebraska set an NCAA regular season volleyball attendance record of 13,870 for a match against UCLA. The previous mark? It was set one year earlier at Devaney – 13,412 against LSU. In fact, six of the NCAA's top 10 all-time regular season crowds were at Devaney. Which probably should come as no surprise, considering that the Nebraska Coliseum has been the site of 135 consecutive sellouts – a record for all NCAA women's sports. As of midweek, 11,031 tickets had been sold for Saturday's match. Given his pick, Hambly would rather face the Huskers at Devaney. Last April, when the Illini played an exhibition match at the Nebraska Coliseum, 4,032 showed up – a school record for a spring date. Much like at the UI's own Huff Hall, the Coliseum's seating is far closer to the court than at most venues. "It was as loud as any place we've been," Hambly said. "The students are right on top of you. The Devaney Center may be full, or close to it, but (the crowd) will be further away from the court. I think it helps us to be at the Devaney Center. It's more of a neutral court."

Master Cook

Nebraska's coach is no stranger to longtime Big Ten volleyball fans. John Cook guided Wisconsin to six straight postseason appearances in seven seasons before returning to Nebraska – where he previously served as an assistant – in 1999. Succeeding legendary coach Terry Pettit one year later, Cook has built his own legend. Entering this season, his first 10 Cornhuskers teams had won 92 percent of their matches (312-27), captured two NCAA titles and advanced to five NCAA semifinals. A two-time AVCA National Coach of the Year, Cook entered 2010 with the sixth-highest career winning percentage (.825) in NCAA volleyball history. "He's regarded as one of the best coaches in the country," Hambly said.

She's Werth it

In 2008, Hannah Werth was The News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year. Now, she's in her second year as a starting outside hitter for Nebraska after earning Big 12 Freshman of the Year and honorable mention All-America honors last season.

And, yes, the Illini staff did try like heck to convince the Chatham Glenwood graduate to bring her considerable volleyball skills to the UI.

"We were in at the end," Hambly said. "I think we were in her top five picks."

Saturday won't be the last time Illinois will have to contend with the 6-foot-1 sophomore. Not with Nebraska moving to the Illini's conference in 2011.

"At the time (she signed), at least she was not in the Big Ten," Hambly said. "But now she is in the Big Ten."

As a freshman, Werth averaged a team-high 3.18 kills per set. Entering Nebraska's match on Thursday night against Dayton, she was still was No. 1 in that category, but not by much. Displaying remarkable balance in their two-setter attack, the Cornhuskers had five players averaging from 2.30 to 2.76 kills per set.

Get 'em early

The Illini should consider themselves forewarned: beat Nebraska in the first set or risk major trouble.

Under Cook, the Cornhuskers entered Thursday with a 283-8 record when winning the opening set. That trend has held steady this season, with Nebraska going 4-0 after winning Set 1.

In their first six matches, the Huskers lost a first set twice. They weren't able to overcome the early deficit against Florida and lost in five sets. They did charge back against Brigham Young, prevailing in four sets.

If the Illini drop the first set against Nebraska, it won't be an unfamiliar scenario. Twice in its first five matches, Illinois was forced to overcome a 1-0 deficit. (One of those, coincidentally, was against BYU). Each time, the Illini regrouped to win in four sets.

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