Fans got their first look at the real 2021 Huskers this weekend as All-American middle blocker Lauren Stivrins made her much anticipated debut.
Stivrins showed no signs of rust in her first game back from her offseason back surgery, putting down 11 kills on .733 hitting in Nebraska’s sweep over Michigan on Friday. With her in the lineup, the Huskers posted their highest hitting percentage of the season against a Wolverines team that received a few votes in last week’s AVCA Coaches Poll.
“This team is just so special, they’re so talented, and we’ve seen it, as we said, in practice, and there have been few times that it’s translated over to the games,” Stivrins said after the Michigan match. “Hopefully now, me being there, stepping into a more leadership role for these people, just brings a sense of calmness and ease back to the court and just let them know that it’s OK and we can just go out there and have fun and get it done.
“I think that that’s going to be huge for this team because I know we’re a very emotional group of girls, which is amazing, but sometimes we let our emotions get the best of us, so just having that person that’s going to be like a steady… I don’t know. But I think that’s going to be my role moving forward.”
Getting an All-American back in the lineup is obviously a boost, but her individual talent is only part of that. It also pushes everyone else back into more natural roles.
“She’s obviously a game-changer,” Coach John Cook said. “The other thing that it does is it takes a lot of focus off our outside hitters. The other thing it does is it gets Kayla back in her natural position. We got her some great swings tonight and she’s much more comfortable in that position than playing Lauren’s position. It just elevates everybody.”
Caffey, Nebraska’s other starting middle blocker, had eight kills on 12 swings against Michigan. With Stivrins on the shelf, Caffey has been in the M1 role alongside the more defensive-minded Callie Schwarzenbach in the M2 spot. The Stivrins Slide draws a lot of attention and creates more opportunities for quick sets to Caffey at the net.
“I’m obviously going in front more, but that’s what I’m used to, that’s the position that I always was playing,” Caffey. “I’m so excited that Lauren’s back, though. I just love her energy on the court. She’s just someone that’s super fun to play with and she brings so much confidence and I think that rubs off on all of us and gives us confidence.”
Madi Kubik hit .455 with 11 kills against Michigan. Ally Batenhorst hit .348 with eight kills. Lindsay Krause chipped in seven kills on .375. Nebraska’s three pin hitters had just two attack errors between them.
“I think it opens up our outsides a lot more,” setter Nicklin Hames said. “People really have to worry about Lauren and I remember last year they would be trapping Lauren and the go would be one-on-one. So it really just opens up our offense and the availability to move everybody around a little bit more, and obviously she brings a lot of fire and energy too which helps.”
The offense came back to earth a bit on Sunday against Michigan State as the Huskers only hit .250, but they flexed their defensive muscles instead in holding the Spartans to .079.
Nebraska is off to a 4-0 start in Big Ten play and is 10-3 overall this season. After the weekend sweep over the Michigan teams, the Huskers moved up two spots to No. 10 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll. Baylor and Oregon both dropped out of the top 10 from last week, allowing the Huskers move up.
Wisconsin (11-1, 3-1) moved up one spot to No. 4 after beating Minnesota and Illinois. Purdue (11-2, 3-1) fell two spots to No. 6 after losing a five-set match against Illinois then sweeping Rutgers. Ohio State (12-2, 2-2) moved up one spot to No. 7 after a pair of sweeps. Minnesota (8-4, 3-1) swapped spots with the Buckeyes and is now at No. 8 after getting swept by Wisconsin. Penn State (11-3, 4-0), Nebraska’s next opponent, rounded out the Big Ten teams in the top 25 at No. 13 after outlasting Maryland in five and taking down Indiana in four.
Illinois (11-4, 3-1) is 27th with 21 points while Maryland (13-3, 1-3) is the final team receiving votes with two points.
The Nittany Lions will be the first ranked team Nebraska has faced since getting swept by Louisville on Sept. 18. Cook said the Huskers are better prepared for the challenge now than they were back then.
“We’re just better,” Cook said. “We’re in more of a rhythm, we understand our roles, just everything. I think our freshmen are more comfortable. We’re playing three freshmen. So I think they know they can play in this conference now and I think they’re just more comfortable. At times there are four freshmen out there. So we’ll see. it’s going to be a great test.”
First serve at Penn State on Friday is set for 6 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.