Voepel: Cornhuskers preparing for life as Big Ten member

Lauren Cook couldn’t have planned it like this. But in her career, she’ll end up having played in the three most powerful conferences in college volleyball.

Cook’s Nebraska team will face a longtime former league foe Saturday when Iowa State (of the still-together-for-now Big 12) comes to Lincoln, Neb.

[+] EnlargeLauren Cook

Nebraska Athletics Lauren Cook and Nebraska have one last match this weekend against Iowa State before beginning Big Ten play against Penn State next week.

Then Sept. 21, the giant of the Huskers’ new conference makes the trip to Nebraska: Penn State, which has won the last four NCAA titles, will be the Huskers’ opening league opponent as they officially become part of the Big Ten.

Saturday’s match against the Cyclones will be at Nebraska’s Devaney Center. That’s the home of the Huskers’ basketball teams, but it eventually will be turned into the volleyball program’s home. This weekend, though, the Big Red volleyball squad — which normally plays in the smaller, perpetually sold-out Nebraska Coliseum — is just visiting Devaney and hopes that many red-clad fans will join in. More than 10,000 tickets already have been sold.

Iowa State is coached by Christy Johnson-Lynch, a former Nebraska player herself. The No. 12 Cyclones are 9-1 and have a victory at No. 7 Florida on their r sum this season, although they just fell Tuesday at No. 15 Northern Iowa.

Iowa State and Oklahoma tied for second in the Big 12 preseason poll behind Texas, now the top dog in the conference with Nebraska making the move to the Big Ten.

Nebraska’s decision to leave was the first big domino to tumble for the Big 12, which, of course, is still on shaky ground. The presence of three-time NCAA champion Nebraska, in particular, had made the Big 12 a power conference in volleyball. The Huskers now make the Big Ten even more formidable.

Last season, the Big Ten put eight teams in the NCAA tournament, the most of any conference. The Pac-10 had six teams in, the same as the SEC. That was an indication of how the volleyball selection committee has tried to “spread the wealth” — or at least NCAA tournament opportunities — to a league like the SEC, which has never had a member school win the NCAA title in volleyball.

But the proof, as always, was in the postseason pudding: The Pac-10 had a 16-6 overall record in the 2010 NCAA tournament, placing two teams — Cal and USC — in the final four. The Big Ten went 18-7 and had the champion, Penn State. The Big 12, which had five teams in the field, went 10-5 and had the other final four team, Texas.

Cook can speak to the difficulty of playing in two of those leagues, and soon will experience what it’s like in the other.

“It’s a really talented conference, and that puts up an even bigger challenge for us,” Cook said of the Big Ten. “We’re the newbies, and we’ll have to learn about these new teams for us to face.

“And we’ll be playing a lot of Friday-Saturday back-to-back matches in the Big Ten, instead of Wednesday-Saturday like it was in the Big 12. So it’s going to be tough, but it’s exciting, too.”

Now a junior setter, Lauren was in second grade when her father, John Cook, left his job as head coach of Wisconsin to return to Nebraska, where he’d previously been an assistant. He then was the Huskers’ associate head coach for a year (1999) before taking over for the retiring Terry Pettit. So the Big 12 is the league Lauren grew up with.

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However, she started her career at UCLA in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12). Her journey to the Left Coast was understandable; as the daughter of the Huskers’ head coach, she felt a pull to go elsewhere and establish her own identity. She did that, earning freshman of the year honors in 2009 both nationally and in the Pac-10. But she realized that she missed home and the volleyball-crazy atmosphere at Nebraska Coliseum and decided to come back.

Cook is the full-time setter this year in a 5-1 system. Last season, she split time at setter with senior Sydney Anderson in a 6-2 system — the two of them rotated in and out, meaning three attackers were always on the front row — that had its critics.

Nebraska, after all, is a place where a large number of fans pay close enough attention to volleyball to enthusiastically second-guess strategy. You certainly can’t say that about too many schools. But Penn State would be one of them. That’s why the matchup of these two titans — Nebraska (2006) is the last school to win the NCAA volleyball title before the Nittany Lions’ four-peat — seems so fitting as the Huskers start Big Ten play.

Both Nebraska and Penn State had heavy losses to graduation, and each has already experienced defeat this year. The Nittany Lions fell to Oregon to start the season, then lost to Stanford and Texas this past weekend at the Nike Big Four Volleyball Classic hosted by the Cardinal. The caliber of its competition and its reputation have kept Penn State ranked No. 5 despite a 4-3 record. This weekend, Penn State will be at home against Long Island, Rutgers and Florida Gulf Coast.

Nebraska was 29-3 last season and lost in the NCAA Sweet 16 to Washington. So far this fall, the Huskers are 6-1, their loss coming Sept. 2 at then-No. 15 Colorado State.

“We’ve been up and down,” said Cook, with the same kind of candor her father has in assessing things. “It’s frustrating because you want to play good all the time. But we’re a young team, and sometimes we don’t even have a senior on the court. We’re all still learning how to work together. I feel we’re going in an upward direction, but it’s taking a little longer.”

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Follow ESPN.com’s college sports coverage on Twitter @ESPN–College and on Facebook.

Follow Mechelle Voepel on Twitter: @mechellev

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