No. 9 Nebraska is back at work this week after going 2-0 on the team’s longest road trip of a season with a four-set win at Penn State on Friday and a sweep at Rutgers on Sunday. After taking Monday off, the Huskers were back on the practice court on Tuesday in preparation for two home games this week.
“It’s a grind,” Coach John Cook said. “We just talked about recovery and getting sleep, but I’m concerned to know how much gas is in the tank emotionally. Physically, they’re fine; it’s emotionally. But that was a long trip. Talk about student athlete welfare, we shouldn’t be playing on Sundays.”
The Penn State match was the first true hostile environment the underclassmen have played in. The team captains got the freshmen and sophomores fired up to play in the match, and Rec Hall did not disappoint.
“It was definitely a little challenging at first to get used to,” freshman Lexi Rodriguez said. “It was the first big crowd that we’ve been used to besides home advantage, but it was fun. I loved that environment and I think our whole team just embraced it and kind of acted like they were cheering for us because I mean we went out there and we balled like no other.”
Nebraska, all alone in first place after beating the Nittany Lions, took home the spoils of victory on Monday as the Huskers took home co-Big Ten Player of the Week (Madi Kubik), Big Ten Setter of the Week (Nicklin Hames) and Big Ten Freshman of the Week (Rodriguez) honors.
“It was great,” Rodriguez said. “I think it was awesome that all three of us got it, Madi, Nicklin and me. It just shows that like we’re still improving and still working really hard.”
Hames surpassed 100 career matches played last week, but the setter of the week award was the first of her career.
“She played really well against Penn State,” Cook said. “She wasn’t so good against Rutgers, so maybe they didn’t see that. But Nicklin does a lot. She’s up there in aces per game and serving, she’s a great defensive player, she did a really nice job blocking against Penn State because they have very physical outside hitters. She leads our team. She had a really good weekend, so I think people recognized that. Penn State’s not an easy place to go in and win.”
Rodriguez’s career got off to a fast start as she recorded double-digit digs in each of her first eight matches as Nebraska’s starting libero, but hit a bit of a freshman wall after that. After totaling just 25 digs in Nebraska’s first three Big Ten matches, Rodriguez has led the Huskers with 17, 19 and 17 digs in her last three.
“I think in the preseason we learned a lot, but even the first couple games in the Bg Ten was a lot different than how our preseason was,” Rodriguez said. “So I think there’s just definitely been some patches of learning throughout the last month.”
A big part of Nebraska’s 2-0 weekend was the team’s serving as the Huskers recorded 18 aces to just 13 errors against Penn State and Rutgers and kept both teams out of system for much of those matches. In Big Ten play only, Nebraska is first in both aces per game (2.10) and aces allowed (0.55).
“Like we always do, we’re trying to emphasize it,” Cook said. “We’ve talked about how our best teams were always our best serving teams and so they’re embracing it and we’ve worked really hard on it. You can’t base it on one weekend; we weren’t serving great the beginning of the year, I can tell you that. But they know some of these teams we’re playing you’ve got to serve tough. You’ve got Kaitlyn Hord, the only way you’re going to slow her down is to serve tough. They’re embracing it and we talk about getting our six best servers out there, so that’s been the focus.”
Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey, who sat out Sunday’s match against Rutgers with a non-COVID-19 illness, did not practice on Tuesday as Cook said she still wasn’t feeling well. Callie Schwarzenbach started in Caffey’s place against the Scarlet Knights and put up 5 kills on .444 hitting and three blocks.
“That’s why we let them battle and we rotate them all,” Cook said. “Even Kalynn Meyer, she rotates in there. We try to always have, each position group, have a group of players that are confident going in.”
The Huskers won’t have to deal with a Sunday match or any traveling this week as Nebraska’s opponents will visit Lincoln on Wednesday and Saturday. First up at the Devaney Center will be Indiana (8-10, 2-4 Big Ten).
“Their setter’s a lefty who can hit, and she’s got a great jump serve, Cook said. “She’s leading the conference in aces per game right now. Offensively their stats are not great but defensively in the Big Ten their stats are really good, right in the middle of pack. So they’re a good defensive team. Edwards has seemed like she’s been there for about 10 years, one of their outside hitters, and they’ve got a [Creighton] transfer, [Kari] Zumach … They’re well-coached, they compete, and I mean they went four with Penn State. I can’t remember who else they beat, but they’ve had a lot of close games.”
Indiana runs a 6-2 with Camryn Haworth and Brooke Westbeld splitting setting duties. Haworth is averaging 0.60 aces per set, tops in the Big Ten in league play. Breana Edwards is leading the team with 3.34 kills per set on .199 hitting while Madi Saris is adding 2.91 kills per set n .128 hitting. Libero Paula Cerame is on of the Big Ten’s leaders in digs with 4.30 per set as opponents are hitting .205 against the Hoosiers in conference play (good for seventh, just behind Penn State).
The Hoosiers took Penn State to four and beat both Michigan State and Rutgers, but they got swept by Purdue, Ohio State and Maryland. The Huskers won’t face a ranked opponent this week, though Saturday’s opponent, Illinois, did receive some votes in this week’s AVCA Poll, but they are viewing it as another step towards their ultimate goals.
“I think at this point we’re still trying to go from good to great and just taking baby steps,” Hames said. “It was a great practice today, we came in going after it and I thought that was really cool. So this week we kind of just need to make a statement and play consistent for a long period of time.”
First serve on Wednesday is set for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.