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With several star super-seniors back, is the Big Ten tougher this year? 'Absolutely,' says John Cook

With several star super-seniors back, is the Big Ten tougher this year? 'Absolutely,' says John Cook

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Nebraska vs. Minnesota, 2.21

Minnesota's Stephanie Samedy rises above Nebraska's Madi Kubik to spike the ball in the third set on Feb. 21 at the Devaney Sports Center.

After the NCAA Tournament for college volleyball was moved to April last season, the seniors who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility are only delaying the start to the real world by about eight months.

And many players took the NCAA up on that offer, and are getting a senior season redo.

For the Big Ten season, which begins this week, that means there should be a lot of good players to watch during the next 10 weeks.

And that means winning the big matches may be more of a challenge. That’s especially the case for the teams trying to beat Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers got back five of their seven seniors from last season.

Nebraska (6-3) begins the Big Ten season Wednesday at Northwestern (5-6).

From the all-Big Ten first and second teams last season, 12 of the 14 seniors who were chosen came back for the extra season.

That includes Big Ten player of the year Stephanie Samedy, the Minnesota right-side hitter who jumps extremely high and hits at angles that make her very difficult to stop.

Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke also came back and is having another great season. She leads the NCAA with a .547 hitting percentage.

By coming back to college, Samedy and Rettke held off on pro contracts in the overseas professional leagues that may have paid them at least $100,000.

Nebraska had half of its seniors return. Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins came back, while Jazz Sweet and Hayley Densberger did not.

Stivrins hasn’t played after needing offseason back surgery, but is hitting in practice and hopes to play.

Nebraska coach John Cook was surprised that some of the top-level players came back.

“I thought Samedy would go pro. She’s ready to go pro,” Cook said. “I thought Rettke would go pro. But for whatever reason, they didn’t, I don’t know. I don’t talk to them, or I haven’t talked to the coaches about it. I’m surprised some of those guys didn’t because they could be making money right now. Those surprise me, but some of the other ones, why not?”

Rettke spent several weeks after the season considering her decision before deciding to play a fifth year of college.

“This was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss out on,” Rettke told the Wisconsin State Journal. “That’s just kind of where my heart fell, knowing that this is it for college. Pro volleyball can wait a little bit.”

Wisconsin's Molly Haggerty isn’t using the extra year and is playing in Italy. Minnesota’s Regan Pittman also moved on and is coaching at clinics and giving lessons.

Cook doesn’t think COVID-19 affected the number of pro contracts available, noting that Sweet got a deal in the Czech Republic after last season ended.

From the Big Ten teams last season, 17 of 44 seniors came back, with most coming from the six NCAA Tournament teams.

With so many experienced players in the Big Ten, Cook says it will “absolutely” make the league tougher.

“We got 18-year-olds going against 22- and 23-year-olds. That’s a big difference,” Cook said.

Nebraska’s Madi Kubik had a feeling that many seniors would come back after last season — when fans couldn’t attend and matches were canceled at the last minute.

“People weren’t ready to leave on that note,” Kubik said. “They weren’t going to end their college career on a weird year. And I think across all of college athletics, a lot of people were feeling that.”

Starting lineup expected to become clear: Cook has chosen a starting lineup and plans to let that group stick together for a while. But he didn’t say who he’d picked.

Kubik, one of the five hitters Cook was considering for three starting spots, said after practice Monday that could be a good thing.

“I think it’s really helpful, just because we’ve played around with a lot of lineups in preseason,” Kubik said. “I think role clarity is really good for our group just because we have a lot of young people. I think it’s going to help our groove in that rotation and finding a place where we can be really comfortable and know how to play next to each other. So I think it’s good.”

Time to regroup: Nebraska is trying to regroup after a rare three-match losing streak. In response, the players have talked about holding each other accountable.

“I’d say the last three matches, after that, we kind of had a come-to-Jesus (moment) and were like, 'OK,’” Kubik said. “We can’t just be like, 'Hey, it’s a fluke, we’re Nebraska volleyball.’ I think sometimes we get this thought of who we are and what our legacy is. But we haven’t done anything yet.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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