There have been 31 all-time matches between Nebraska and Baylor volleyball. The Huskers have won all 31—and never needed more than four sets to do it—but Sunday’s Regional Semifinal is the first NCAA Tournament meeting between the two, and that’s a different animal under normal circumstances, perhaps especially so in this reduced-field, one-site, compressed-schedule spring version of college volleyball’s biggest annual gathering.
“Everything’s been a challenge,” Coach John Cook said Saturday, checking in via Zoom from the Huskers’ hotel in Omaha. “Everything’s been different. I’m doing everything I can to stay in my comfort zone because I’m second-guessing everything we’re doing, wondering if it’s the right thing.”
Despite a nearly three-week gap between games, fifth-seeded Nebraska (15-2, 14-2) looked pretty comfortable in its opening match of the tournament. The Huskers hit a season-high .398 in the second-round sweep of Texas State. It was the fourth match in the last five in which Nebraska topped .350, and Cook said it was the best passing match of the season based on the team’s internal grading.
Junior setter Nicklin Hames took advantage, dishing out 43 assists for an average of 14.3 per set. She led the Big Ten during the regular season at 11.1 assists per set.
“If we’re passing well and Nicklin gets in a good rhythm, that’s our X-factor,” Cook said.
Hames didn’t lack for options in Thursday’s win. Nebraska’s top two middle blockers, Lauren Stivrins and Kayla Caffey, combined to hit .615 against the Bobcats. Outside hitter Madi Kubik led the Huskers with 13 kills while hitting a season-high .407.
The most welcome sight, however, might have been a strong performance from right-side hitter Jazz Sweet. The senior was in and out of the starting lineup, rotating with Riley Zuhn until she was sidelined for the season with an injury. In addition to finishing second on the team with three blocks, Sweet was error-free on 20 swings against Texas State, recording eight kills for a .400 hitting percentage.
“It makes us a much more balanced team,” Cook said of Sweet’s production. “For a while there we were losing matches because we had no right-side attack. Your right-side has to be able to get kills and hit for a big number.”
Twelfth-seeded Baylor (20-6, 13-3) will provide a challenge defensively. Middle blocker Kara McGhee ranked second in the Big 12 and 39th nationally with 1.26 blocks per set. She had six in the Bears’ five-set win over Pepperdine to reach the Regional Semifinal. Junior Shamel Branschreiber also presents problems on multiple fronts. She ranked second in the conference in service aces (28) and was named the Big 12 Libero of the Year.
Offensively, Baylor is led by senior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley. The 2019 AVCA National Player of the Year, Pressley ranks first nationally in attacks per set (11.6) and kills per set (4.68) and is second at 5.1 points per set.
Nebraska is making its 36th appearance in an NCAA Regional, the most in NCAA history. With a win the Huskers would make their 10th-straight Regional Final. That’s the third-longest active streak in the country.
Should the Huskers get there, it will be the second-longest streak as the two teams above Nebraska on the list play on the other side of the regional bracket. Fourth-seeded Texas (15 straight Regional Finals) faces 13-seed Penn State (18 straight) at 4:00 p.m. CT on Sunday.
First serve for Nebraska-Baylor is set for 1:30 p.m. The match will be televised on ESPNU and available to stream at WatchESPN.com.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.