It wasn’t always pretty offensively but strong defense and timely hitting powered No. 2 Nebraska to a 3-1 win over No. 18 Creighton in the Huskers’ season-opener on Friday night.
Nebraska beat Creighton 25-19, 24-26, 25-17, 25-21 in front of 8,450 fans at the Devaney Center to open Husker Invitational play 1-0.
“I thought there were some good rallies, some good volleyball tonight,” Coach John Cook said. “There were first-game jitters, I think, a little bit on both sides and I thought Creighton played really well. I thought our team got better as the match went on and we started settling down a little bit. Again, it was a great celebration for Nebraska volleyball and in this state.”
The Huskers out-hit the Bluejays .176 to .067 and out-blocked them eight to five. The Huskers led start to finish in the first and third sets while the second and fourth games featured 23 ties and eight lead changes. Nebraska started two true freshmen in outside hitter Madi Kubik and libero Kenzie Knuckles.
“I think this team is relentless on defense and I think we proved that it’s not going to be easy to play us,” junior middle blocker and co-captain Lauren Stivrins said. “We’re going to give it all we have and there were so many long rallies, and I think for the most part we were winning them. This team is really young but they didn’t act it today. I think we could have come out and played nervous or scared but we came out really strong in the first set.”
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun led the Huskers with 13 kills on .149 hitting. She committed four errors in the first two sets but recorded just two in the final two frames, crediting increased aggressiveness for her cleaner play later on.
Kubik got the start at outside hitter, but Cook rotated Capri Davis in for her in the front row starting late in the first set. Kubik finished with five kills in .250 hitting and six digs. Davis had 10 kills on .192 hitting thanks to five attack errors.
“I just felt Madi was just really tentative tonight, and Capri, as you can see, does some nice things,” Cook said. “I wanted to get an opportunity to get Capri in tonight and that was it.”
Stvirins added nine kills on 16 swings, hitting a match-high 500. Seven of those kills came in the final two sets.
“She’s arguably the best middle in the country I think right now, especially behind [on the slide],” Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “We were committing everything to try to slow her down and unfortunately couldn’t do it.”
Knuckles recorded a match-high 22 digs and added six assists in her debut at libero. Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had 35 assists, 15 digs and four aces. Sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller — who subbed in for junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet in the back row — added 14 digs. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach had a match-high five blocks.
Cook said he was pleased with his team’s defense “at times.”
“We let some balls drop that we probably should have gotten or made a better effort on,” Cook said. “But Keeley Davis had a couple really nice roll shot tips that were very difficult to defend. I thought she did a really good job of disguising that. It’s the first match, we couldn’t prepare for them because we didn’t know what lineup they were going to run — we haven’t seen half those players. That’s part of why preparation is so important. But we still held them to .057; usually if you hold teams to that you’re going to win.”
Davis, a redshirt freshman outside hitter, led the Jays with 13 kills while Lincoln native and Malcolm High School product Jaela Zimmerman added 12 kills, 10 digs and two aces though the Huskers also forced her into 13 attack errors.
Nebraska jumped out to a 5-1 start in what proved to be a streaky first set. The Bluejays pulled within one at 6-5 before the Huskers ripped off a 6-0 run to pull ahead 12-5. After trading points, Creighton scored four straight to pull within three and draw Nebraska’s first timeout.
Out of the break, the Huskers scored four straight to pull ahead 17-10 with junior Hayley Densberger in as a serving substitute for Stivrins. A couple of points later, Sun put down a kill to end one of the craziest rallies of the night that included Kubik sending a free ball over the net from her knees.
“I think there were a ton of plays like that tonight,” Sun said. “There were a ton of big covering plays and balls that shouldn’t have been up and I think our backcourt did a great job of covering and being scrappy tonight. There were a lot of plays like that that really got our momentum going and got us fired up and more excited to win the point for sure.”
Hames proceeded to serve three straight aces after that to put the huskers up 21-13.
Creighton scored three straight to pull within five. With Nebraska up 22-17, Davis — the star of the Red-White Scrimmage — subbed in to a loud round of applause from the fans and put down a kill on her second rally. After a Nebraska service error, Stivrins terminated to set up set-point and Davis finished it off with her second kill.
Nebraska out-hit Creighton .243 to .032. Both sides had six attack errors but the Huskers recorded eight more kills. Sweet led the Huskers with four kills in the first set.
Whereas the first set was a game of runs featuring big Nebraska leads, the two teams were neck-and-neck throughout the second set. Creighton’s Davis gave the Jays a spark, but Nebraska’s Davis did the same for the Huskers playing in the rotation with Kubik.
Creighton took its first lead at 10-9, Nebraska pulled back ahead 17-16 with a 3-0 run including back-to-back attack errors by Zimmerman, and Creighton tied it up at 23-23.
After a timeout by Nebraska, Creighton’s serve went long to give the Huskers set point. Creighton tied it up again with a tough out-of-system kill by Zimmerman, then Zimmerman gave Creighton set point with an ace. Davis took a big swing for Nebraska on the next point but it sailed long, tying the match at 1-1 heading into the intermission.
Creighton flipped things around in the second set, out-hitting the Huskers .159 to 0.083 with a 17-9 edge in kills.
During the break, Nebraska introduced new Nebraska Athletics Hall of Famer Greichaly Cepero to the crowd. The former Husker volleyball and basketball dual-sport athlete was inducted into the hall earlier on Friday afternoon.
The third set was all Nebraska as the Huskers jumped out to a 5-1 lead and never looked back. A 5-0 run pushed the Huskers’ lead to seven at 11-4, then Nebraska stretched it out even further at 19-10. Creighton had just two kills and six errors at that point.
After a timeout Creighton ripped off three straight, in turn drawing a timeout from Cook, but the Jays got no closer than six the rest of the way. With the Huskers up 23-16, true freshman setter Nicole Drewnick checked in to serve and sophomore opposite hitter Anezka Szabo made her season debut as well. Creighton won that point on a kill by Davis but then committed two straight errors to seal the set for the Huskers.
Nebraska fed Stivrins throughout the set and she delivered time and again particularly on the slide, recording four kills on eight swings.
“We didn’t really set it in the beginning because they were sending two blockers up with me for the most part,” Stivrins said. “I think there just came a point where, in one of the timeouts, our coaches were like ‘Just set it anyway.’ So we did and we were being aggressive with it, and I know Nicklin’s going to put up a hittable ball from wherever.”
Nebraska held Creighton to -.065 hitting in the third set thanks to 12 attack errors.
The fourth set was tight again as neither side was able to string together points until a 3-0 run by Nebraska gave the Huskers a 7-5 edge. Nebraska pushed that advantage up to three before the Jays tied it up again at 11-all. Nebraska pulled ahead 17-14 but Creighton tied it again with a 3-0 run.
After eight straight sideouts, Nebraska closed out the match with a 4-0 run aided by a pair of Creighton errors.
Nebraska played its cleanest set of the night in game four, hitting .239 with just three attack errors while holding the Jays to .071 hitting.
“I think that we can always do a little bit better and clean up a few of our hitting errors but I think we have to give Creighton’s defense props too because our rallies were long and that libero [Brittany Whitt] was not going to let a ball go down easy,” Stivrins said about the Huskers’ .176 attack percentage. “Even their setter, their setter [Madelyn Cole] had 15 digs. We love playing teams like that and it’s a lot more exciting. Definitely hoping that number goes up the rest of the way but for a first game I think we did great.”
In the first game of the day, No. 20 Baylor swept UCLA 25-20, 25-16 and 25-20. The Huskers will face the Bruins in their second game of the invitational on Saturday night. Senior outside hitter Savvy Simo was the standout for UCLA with nine kills and 10 digs.
Creighton will face Baylor at 4:30 p.m. with the Huskers’ match against UCLA to follow at 7 p.m. NET will televise the match.
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.