In Nebraska’s 3-0 win against Indiana on Nov. 2, Ally Batenhorst had two errors and just one kill on eight swings in the first set.
Coach John Cook chose to shake things up for the rest of the match. He sat Batenhorst down, shifted Lindsay Krause to outside hitter and inserted Maggie Mendelson at opposite hitter. Krause went off, Mendelson did her job and the Huskers cruised to victory.
“Put them on the bench, the bench sends a message up to the brain ‘Get off the bench if you want to play. Get up and do good stuff,’” Cook said. “She responded really well. You can get all the psychology degrees, all the doctorates, all that stuff; the bench is the greatest motivator and teacher.”
Batenhorst said she understood the situation, and it fueled her to up her game as she was right back in the starting lineup the next time Nebraska took the court.
“It’s just like ‘I’m not doing my job right now and I need to step up,’” Batenhorst said. “Every day I come into practice just doing the best I can and every game I come into the game doing the best I can for the team, so being taken out of the game obviously sets a fire under my butt.”
Since the benching, Batenhorst has played some of her best volleyball of the season. She had nine kills on .240 hitting and three blocks against Northwestern, eight kills on .316 hitting and five blocks against Iowa and a career-high-tying 15 kills on .256 hitting and one block against Ohio State.
“I’ve just really been working hard at being the best version of myself for the team and bringing as much positive energy as I could for the team,” Batenhorst said. “I think just coming into each match knowing that I’m going to focus on what I can control and bringing my energy and my hard work and my passion to the game for the team, the play comes along with that. I think it’s just kind of escalated from there, kind of setting my mind to being the best version of myself for the team.”
Batenhorst played quite a bit as a.freshman last season, though her role fluctuated. She averaged 1.99 kills per set on .155 hitting and .031 blocks per set. She had to deal with an injury that knocked her out of the lineup for a time and then made it difficult for her to crack the rotation once she got back on the court, but even so she’s taken a big step forward this year The 6-foot-5 sophomore is averaging 2.13 kills per set on .222 hitting and 0.52 blocks per set as the second outside hitter. She credited a mental shift for her improvement.
“I think just being less focused on myself and less in my own head and just kind of focusing on our team goal and the other side of the net and what we want to accomplish,” Batenhorst said. “I think that’s really helped me kind of not be so mental internally in my game, at least, and I think it’s just really brought the best out of me is just focusing on playing for our team.”
Mendelson has spent more time on the bench than on the court this season, but she’s answered the call every time the Huskers have needed her, either because of starters struggling (like Batenhorst) or injury or illness (Bekka Allick has missed a few matches including Nebraska’s win against Iowa). Against Ohio State on Sunday, Cook turned to Kennedi Orr as the second setter with Anni Evans struggling, the sophomore’s first appearance since Oct. 8.
“Maggie’s done that all year,” Cook said. “She’s played middle, right side. She’s great. She’s a competitor. She’s got a great mindset, so she’s great at that. Kennedi’s been practicing great. Anni was struggling, so I threw her in there and I thought she did pretty well.”
Everyone on the roster has played a part in the Huskers making it to this point, and after spending all season atop the Big Ten, the Huskers suddenly find themselves trying to play catch-up. No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 5 Ohio State are sitting at 15-1 with four Big Ten matches remaining, while the No. 6 Huskers find themselves at 14-2.
“Obviously not the most ideal spot to be in right now, but we’re going to learn from [Ohio State] and just do the best we can coming into practice every day, grinding it out and kind of just working hard,” Batenhorst said.
Nebraska split the season series with Ohio State already, so the Huskers will need some help to catch the Buckeyes. However, Wisconsin — along with No. 9 Minnesota — will play both the Buckeyes and Huskers during the final week of the season, so Nebraska still has plenty to play for.
“We’re super excited,” Batenhorst said. “I think every day we’ve come into practice focusing on being competitive. We know what we need to do and at this point we need to focus on ourselves and our mindset and our mentality going into those matches knowing that we need to kind of have a certain edge to us that’s going to allow us to finish those big matches. Every team on the other side of the net is going to be good at this point.”
Nebraska will close out the season with three straight home matches against top-20 teams, but first the Huskers have one more road match to play. They will head to Iowa City on Friday after sweeping the Hawkeyes in impressive fashion at the Devaney Center last week. Iowa (8-19) is in a three-way tie at the bottom of the Big Ten with Michigan State and Rutgers; all three are 2-14 in Big Ten play.
Nebraska will then close out the weekend at home against No. 19 Purdue (18-8) on Sunday. The Huskers swept the Boilermakers in West Lafayette on Oct. 19.
“We kind of came in saying we’re going to play Husker volleyball and we’re going to bring fire and just play our game,” Batenhorst said of the first meeting with Purdue, ranked 12th at the time. “I think just focusing on ourselves and having a positive mindset going into that match really helped us out.”
Cook said on Tuesday that he still thinks his team can get better at this point in the season, and the Friday-Sunday/Saturday schedule for the last two weeks of the season will give the Cornhuskers a chance to do just that as they can spend the week training instead of traveling for mid-week matches.
“It just gives you a couple days in the middle of the week to really work on you and train and spend some time as opposed to just trying to manage — ‘OK, I’ve got to keep them fresh for Wednesday, we’ve got to recover, we’ve got one day to recover for a Saturday match,’” Cook said. “So that part of it, I like it and I think it’s good for us. The bad part is players never get a day off, because Monday’s school; it’s not like they get a day off. I was talking to one of our players yesterday; I saw her and and I just said ‘What are you doing?’ She just goes, ‘I’m going to decompress for the next six hours.’ She already did her class work, whatever, and she was just going to go chill somewhere for the rest of the day. They never feel like they get a day off.”
Cook said finding the balance between pushing the players on the court to get better and giving them enough time to themselves to stay mentally fresh is an important part of finishing the season strong and making a deep postseason run.
“It’s all about recovery,” Cook said. “It’s about sleep, it’s about their diet, it’s about trying to get a breakaway — like she said, she’s going to decompress, getting a mental break. We do mindfulness training that helps them with that. The teams that manage that the best will be the teams that are playing the best here in the next few weeks.”
First serve in Iowa City on Friday is set for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Plus. Sunday’s match at the Devaney is set for noon 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.