No. 8 Nebraska has experienced heartbreak after heartbreak over the last month of matches, suffering more losses in a three-week span than the Huskers had total in each of the previous three seasons.
Nebraska finally broke through on Friday night, celebrating the team’s 250th consecutive home sellout with a five-set victory over No. 7 Penn State (18-5, 9-4). Before Friday, the Huskers had dropped five straight matches to top-10 opponents.
The Huskers (17-6, 8-5) dominated the final two sets to earn their first five-set win of conference play, beating the Nittany Lions 25-27, 25-19, 21-25, 25-18 and 15-8 in front of 8,434 fans at the Devaney Center.
“I thought it was a great match, two teams that played their hearts out, great efforts defensively,” Coach John Cook said. “I think these are two of the best defensive teams in the country and how hard they play, it was great volleyball. Our fans got their money’s worth and it was great for our team to finally win a fifth game. I just thought it was a total team effort and I saw some people really step up in game five, Lexi [Sun], Lauren [Stivrins] and Megan Miller had a huge dig.
“I thought we did a really good job of believing and staying consistent. It’s really good because these guys have been working really hard and they’ve had a lot of reasons to be discouraged but we’ve been sticking to it and it finally paid off tonight.”
The Huskers lost in five sets at Penn State on Oct. 13, then followed it up with another five-set loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 19. Nebraska’s stretch of five losses in seven matches also included two four-set defeats to league-leading Minnesota and another to Illinois. All four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10.
“It’s good to win,” Cook said. “It’s heart-breaking to lose five-gamers. It’s like losing on a last-second touchdown. When we were there [at Penn State], we got blown out in game five and tonight, we imposed our will on them and played great volleyball. It’s a good change for us, a good adjustment especially after losing in five to Wisconsin and we had a chance both times to be in five with Minnesota. We’re developing the resiliency muscle.”
Nebraska leaned heavily on its defense all night as only two Huskers who played in all five sets hit above .111. The Huskers held Penn State to a season-low .114 attack percentage and recorded 104 digs, the most for Nebraska since 2004. Nebraska also recorded 20 blocks, its highest total since 2006. The Huskers did all that while recording just one ace, which came on the fourth-to-last-rally of the match.
“My only frustration tonight was we couldn’t stress their passers,” Cook said. “They passed great, and so you saw a defensive clinic by us tonight because they were in system way too much for what we’re used to. We just couldn’t stress their passers; we were trying everything.”
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke led the way defensively for the Huskers, finishing with a career-high 29 digs to go with 15 kills and six blocks. Cook said he had flashbacks to a former Husker while watching his senior co-captain on Friday.
“She played phenomenal defense tonight, phenomenal,” Cook said. “I told John Baylor up there I was having flashbacks — is that Anni [Albrecht]? It reminded me of Anni just how she was laying out, digging balls and digging them to the target where we could convert.”
Stivrins said she was blown away by Foecke’s performance.
“Foecke gives it her all every single practice and there’s no question about her work ethic,” Stivrins said. “It was really nice to see her finally have it all come through for her. I’m really proud of Foecke. we were joking in the locker room after the game and I said, ‘Foecke, I take back every unathletic joke I ever made about you; you were lights out tonight.’ And Kenzie [Maloney] of course is unstoppable. She is so hungry for the ball. She never lets anything drop back there. It’s nice to have that on our team.”
Maloney, Foecke’s fellow senior captain and the team’s libero, added 23 digs while freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller tied her career-high with 14 digs. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames finished with 46 assists and 17 digs.
Stivrins herself had a monster performance, recording her first career double-double with 13 kills on .522 hitting and a career-high 10 blocks. She was also responsible for Nebraska’s lone ace, serving a 7-0 run in the fifth set that sealed the match.
“She’s big-time,” Cook said. “Lauren’s a great competitor. She a couple weeks ago talked to me about how she’s tired of losing and wants to know what she has to do to help this team win. I think she’s a great competitor. That’s why I went with her in game five because I knew Lauren would compete serving and sticking her serves. She’s been struggling the last few weeks serving, but I just saw the look in her eye and she wanted this match tonight. When you get a middle that can dominate like that, it really, really helps out everybody else.
The story of the match, however, was the turnaround by sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun. Through three sets, Sun was hitting in the negative and at the end of the fourth she had just one more kill than error. She stepped up in the fifth, however, and played a clean game to finish with a team high 16 kills to go with 14 digs, giving the Huskers four players with a double-double.
“I honestly think it was the team,” Sun said. “That’s the reason we won those beginning sets. We got momentum back and we shut them down. They couldn’t really do anything. I think we just focused on our side, and slowly Nicklin kept trusting in me and I got some momentum back. But most of all, everyone was just vibing together and we were all playing together and chipping in in some way or another. It was awesome.”
Penn State got off to a 6-3 start as the Huskers came up empty on their first five swings until Foecke tooled the Penn State block for Nebraska’s first kill. Penn State continued to hold a lead until a 5-0 run served by Maloney that featured a point in which Penn State turned to celebrate a block only to have the Huskers somehow keep the ball of the deck. Nebraska went on to win the point.
After trading points a few times Nebraska used a 3-0 run to take an 18-15 lead. Arguably the rally of the night came with Nebraska leading 19-16. Penn State took a big swing that bounced off Foecke’s hands and appeared headed for the first row of fans sitting court side, but Maloney tracked it down and crashed through the Nebraska bench to keep the play arrive. After the teams went back and forth a few times Schwarzenbach rose up for a solo stuff on Kaitlyn Hord to put the Huskers up 20-16 and get the Devaney Center on its feet.
— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) November 3, 2018
“Coach was saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop’ and I was like, ‘go, go, go!’” Sun said. “And then she got it and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’”
“She was stuck in that chair for a while,” Stivrins chipped in. “That just goes to show the type of player Kenzie is. She goes all out for this team and I think a lot of girls can learn from watching her play.”
Nebraska held on to take se point at 24-21 before the Huskers fell apart, allowing a 3-0 Penn State run to tie it up. A service error gave the Huskers a fourth et point chance but a Penn State kill tied it up once again and Nebraska misfired on back-to-back points to have the Nittany Lions a 27-25 win.
Penn State finished with 19 kills and hit .271 in the first set compared to 13 kills and .140 hitting for the Huskers. Five service errors and a 4-2 edge in blocks allowed the Huskers to keep pace.
Nebraska used a 6-2 run early in set two to pull ahead 9-6, but the Nittany Lions answered with three straight to tie it. After a Nebraska timeout, the Huskers found a rhythm and ripped off a 7-1 run sparked by three straight kills by Sun. The run gave Nebraska a 16-10 lead that the Huskers stretched out to a 24-15 advantage before Penn State staged a late rally. The Nittany Lions saved four set points before the Huskers managed to finish it off with a double-block by Schwarzenbach and Hames.
After committing five attack errors with just three kills in the first set, Sun bounced back with four kills and just two errors. Foecke had 21 digs (needing just two sets to top her previous best of 19) to go with six kills at the intermission.
The third set featured 13 ties and seven lead changes as neither team managed to take control and hold onto it. Nebraska pulled ahead by two a few times early in the set but failed to pull away and Penn State took advantage, using a 3-0 run including back-to-back blocks on Sweet to build a 22-18 lead.
Nebraska cut its deficit in half at 23-21 but Penn State closed out the set with a kill and a block to take a 2-1 lead. Nebraska hit .032 in the set.
Cook inserted freshman Capri Davis into rotation one for the struggling Sweet and Davi got theHuskers off to a great start with a kill on her first swing. Nebraska jumped out a 4-1 lead early then stretched it to 8-3 before Penn State ripped off three straight. The lead see-sawed between two and four until Nebraska blew the game open with a 6-1 run to take a 16-9 lead. The Huskers cruised from there, expanding the lead to as much as eight before closing out the set for a seven-point win to send the match to a fifth set.
The Huskers held the Nittany Lions to .022 hitting in the fourth set and hit .238 themselves with 14 kills.
The fifth set went back and forth early until a 4-0 run by the Huskers with Foecke at the service line gave Nebraska an 8-5 lead at the changeover and the Huskers dominated the rest of the way, using a 7-0 run capped by their first ace of a the match — a serve off the top by Stivrins — to create set point. Sun finished it off a couple of points later.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) November 3, 2018
“It was fun,” Sun said. “I think the crowd was getting into it, we were getting into it, Lauren put on a nice little serving run there, got a little ace. But I think we were all just working together. Everyone was contributing and it was fun out there.”
Sun entered the fifth set with 10 kills and nine errors on 54 attempts. She put down six kills on nine swings without an error and also recorded a block to account for seven of Nebraska’s 15 points all by herself in the fifth.
"I think that was something our team really needed,” Stivrins said. “We’ve been working really hard in practice all week, and obviously the Big Ten is never easy, but we’ve just been kind of letting a few points here and there slip through our fingers at crucial moments. It was just nice too see our team fight back tonight. It kind of shows us what we’re capable of and where we can go from here."
The Huskers will return to the Devaney Center court on Saturday night to host Rutgers (6-20, 0-13). The Scarlet Knights have won a total of five sets in Big Ten play this season. First serve is set for 7 p.m. on NET.
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.