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Nebraska Volleyball

Serve and Pass Improvement Key for Huskers

August 11, 2020
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Serve, pass and defense.

That simple mantra is the foundation on which John Cook has built his program, and it’s served him well through his time in Lincoln to the tune of 12 conference title and four national championships.

The Huskers used that same formula to advance to four straight Final Fours. However, the 2019 team followed a slightly different script.

Nebraska was still an elite defensive team, leading the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage by a significant margin at .152 (Minnesota was second at .180). The Huskers featured strong defenders both at the net and in the back row.

That defense didn’t always translate into smooth, pin-point passing, however, and if you can’t translate defense into good offense then getting to the ball doesn’t much matter. The Huskers brought a lot of experience back in 2019, but Cook also had freshmen playing some big roles.

Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubek was the most targeted Husker in serve receive with 647 attempts and she committed 38 serve receive errors for a less than stellar .941 reception percentage. Second on the team in serve receive was another freshman in libero Kenzie Knuckles with 553, though she was better at keeping the ball in play with 20 reception errors and a .964 reception percentage. 

The other two players who regularly saw serves come their way were sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller (366 attempts, 23 errors, .937 reception percentage) and junior outside hitter Lexi Sun (352 attempts, 29 errors, .918 reception percentage). Miller has since transferred to Northwestern, but the other three will be back in featured roles for the Huskers.

“The majority of our first contacts last year were with Madi and Kenzie, two freshmen, so hopefully with a year [under their belts] that will get better,” Coach John Cook told Hail Varsity. “We’re counting on some experience. Lexi will have her third year doing it, so that will be experience. Jazz [Sweet] continues to be pretty solid in that area when we need her in that.”

Sweet has been working towards playing all six rotations since she first arrived on campus, and heading into her senior year it’s now or never for her to make that happen. She received 59 serves last season and committed just two errors, putting her on par with Knuckles at .966.

In big matches—Stanford at home and all three matches at Wisconsin—the opposition won the passing battle and stayed in system much more often, allowing for some big hitting numbers against Nebraska’s normally stout defense. Tightening that up will be a focus for the Huskers heading into the next season. Some of it comes down to practice reps, but a lot of it is mental.

“The mindset and confidence to serve and pass and put the ball where you need it, get the ball to the setter,” Cook said. “I think our players understand how important that is and they have to commit to it. Every touch is huge. Experience, I think it’s mainly that, and then having some good competition. The six best servers play and the four best passers play.”

Serving is the other area where the Huskers struggled more than normal in 2019. Cook doesn't evaluate his team’s serving based on aces and errors, but those are the numbers available to the public and they do tell at least part of the story. Nebraska was dead last in the Big Ten in service aces at 1.05 per set.

Nicklin Hames serves first in Nebraska’s most common rotation and she led the team with 26 aces, but that was a drop-off from what she did as a freshman with 40 aces (0.22 per set in 2019 compared to 0.30 in 2018).Still, Cook said Hames was “no question” their best server last year.

“Nicklin, in the big matches, puts up the best numbers,” Cook said. “We had some players take some steps last year. Lexi went up another level. But Madi and Kenzie have got to get better, but typically with experience there’s improvement there. Hayley Densberger’s been really good at times. But we lost a couple players that did really well serving for us, Megan Miller. We’ll have to find somebody that can step in and fill that role.”

Miller put together some terrific stretches of serving in 2019 and she finished the season even in aces and errors with 24 of each. She’s gone, and Nebraska will need others to step up. The two freshmen struggled mightily in their first season of college volleyball. 

Knuckles got off to a slow start in her first 13 matches with 22 errors to just five aces, settled in over the next eight with nine aces and nine errors and fell into a slump again over the last eight games with just two aces and 13 errors. Kubik struggled all season long, recording just 14 aces and 42 errors.They both have to be better movies forward, and with Miller’s departure walk-on Hayley Densbegrer, who has played at various points as a serving sub over the last three seasons, could earn a more consistent role as a senior.

Again, serving isn’t all about aces; it’s about putting the pressure on your opponents enough to keep them out of system. But the ratio of negative to positive results for Nebraska’s serving wasn’t where it needed to be for Nebraska to make it back to the Final Four, and the same goes for Nebraska’s passing. If the Huskers can polish things up in those areas, Nebraska could be back in the hunt for a national championship once again after bowing out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament in the regional final. 

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