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Steven M. Sipple: Cook and crew turn Husker sports conversation in more pleasant direction

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Nebraska vs. Pittsburgh, 12.16

Nebraska's Lauren Stivrins (left) and Lindsay Krause hug after defeating Pittsburgh in their national semifinal match at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. 

Thank heavens for John Cook and his crew.

They certainly turn our conversation in a more pleasant direction.

They provide warmth in the chill of December.

If nothing else, fans of University of Nebraska athletics can thank Cook and his Husker volleyball team for much-needed positive energy, among other gifts. 

Much-needed positive energy? If you follow Nebraska football and men's basketball at all, you know what I mean. 

Those conversations can be cumbersome, complex and potentially divisive — not necessarily recommended for the dinner table. 

Meanwhile, Nebraska sports fans perhaps should thank Cook's crew for being predictably prepared to rise to the challenges that the NCAA Tournament inevitably brings, particularly when the Final Four rolls around. 

My heavens, Final Four battles trend toward ultra-intense — mentally, emotionally and physically. 

Nebraska, seeded 10th overall in the NCAA field, obviously faces a stern challenge in Saturday night's national championship match against No. 4 Wisconsin, a program that's had the Huskers' number of late. 

Wisconsin has won seven straight in the series, dating back to Nebraska’s 2017 national championship season. The Badgers’ 2017 recruiting class has been successful against the Huskers. Sydney Hilley, Grace Loberg and Dana Rettke — each top-20 national recruits — have a 7-1 record against NU.

Nebraska (26-7), though, won't be intimidated when the teams take the floor at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, and I write that with great certainty.

If you saw Nebraska's four-set win against third-seeded Pittsburgh in the national semifinals, you understand why I'm so certain that Cook's team won't be intimidated. 

Pitt (30-4) jumped on Nebraska in the first set. The Panthers' defense-to-offense quickness put the Huskers on their heels. But they had the sort of response we've come to expect. NU's coaching staff made adjustments, and the Huskers won the second set easily and generally remained in control the rest of the night. 

Just because we've come to expect such a response doesn't make it automatic. It's far from automatic. 

Nebraska football fans long took nine-win seasons for granted, as if they were automatic. I hope Husker fans don't take volleyball success for granted. 

Yes, Nebraska will have its hands full against Wisconsin (30-3), which will be gunning for the program's first national championship. But, again, I say with certainty the Huskers won't be intimidated. I anticipate a five-set slugfest. Get the popcorn ready. Get a lot of popcorn ready. After hearing (via Twitter) Cook's postgame speech to his players Thursday night, it's clear his team is in a good frame of mind. 

A fighting frame of mind. 

"We started off a little shaky today," Cook told his players, referring to the first-set loss. "We forgot how to pass." 

His players chuckled.

"Anyway, the resiliency and grit we've been building all year, you guys hung in there," Cook continued. "Like (assistant coach) Tyler (Hildebrand) says, it's a war of attrition. They came out and played an amazing first game. We hung in there. War of attrition. And look at what happened. How many blocks did we have in that last game?" 

Answer: Enough to advance.

"Like I told you guys, sometimes it's a little ugly out there when you get to this point, but you just stay with it and go on to the next play," Cook said. "You guys did a masterful job of that. Your focus and going on to the next play and believing we're going to win the next play, it's contagious. You can feel it. The crowd senses it. You guys are doing an awesome job with that. Great work on that, and now we get another shot at our buddies." 

Yes, Cook called Wisconsin "our buddies." Perfect.

And with that, Nebraska players howled with delight, nary a trace of trepidation. 

There's no reason for Nebraska to be intimidated by anyone at this point because the 65-year-old Cook, in his 22nd season as the program's head coach, has an established formula for success. Long about 2014, back when NU was experiencing sustained struggles against Penn State, Cook decided serve, block and defense had to be priorities in his program. 

Nebraska played much better defense than Pittsburgh. Nebraska plays much better defense than almost anyone. 

Nebraska served six aces and had only six service errors Thursday night. Meanwhile, Pitt served five aces, with 12 errors.

In the end, the better program won, and Nebraska now shoots for its sixth national championship.  

If you're a Nebraska fan, you know Wisconsin will be a bear to wrestle down. But you also know the Huskers will stick to their formula, and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt they will battle to the end. 

It's a pleasant conversation, huh? Enjoy the heck out of it, and please don't take it for granted. 

Contact the writer at ssipple@journalstar.com or 402-473-7440. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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