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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Freshmen Shine in First Start as Huskers Sweep Utah State

August 25, 2023

Three freshmen earned the start for No. 5 Nebraska in the Huskers’ season-opening sweep of Utah State in the Ameritas Players Challenge Friday night.

That included Bergen Reilly, who became the second freshman setter in program history to startseason-opener, following Nicklin Hames. While Coach John Cook typically announces starters an hour or so before the match, he pulled Reilly aside earlier in the day after the team meal to share the news and give her time to prepare herself.

“He pulled me aside and he just kind of said, ‘Do you know that there’s only been one freshman starting setter in the history of Nebraska?’, and I said ‘Yeah,’” Reilly said. “He was like, ‘Do you know who that was?’, and I said ‘Nicklin.’ He was like, ‘Well, you’re going to be the second,’ and he just kind of said ‘This team has a lot of trust in you and you’ve given us a reason to trust you and we have full confidence in you.’”

Reilly finished with 26 assists, seven digs, four kills (on .667 hitting) and three blocks in her first match. Cook said she earned the starting job with her performance throughout the preseason.

“Just day after day, she’s usually one of our best servers,” Cook said. “She’s getting better as a blocker. She sets really good tempo. She sets the middle really well. Her back sets are world class… She’s a great competitor. It’s been very close, but over time she’s a couple points better right now.”

Harper Murray also earned the start at outside hitter, tying for the team lead with nine kills on .350 hitting with five blocks, four digs and an ace while playing all six rotations. Her first point as a Husker came via the service line on the third rally of the match, which she said felt “pretty good.”

Freshman Harper Murray serves the ball against Utah State in Nebraska’s season-opener Friday, August 25, 2023. Photo by John Peterson.

“I’ve been working on my serve a lot in practice and it’s been something that I want to work on,” Murray said. “So I was proud of myself, but it still needs to get better.”

While Murray showed plenty of promise, she did surrender three aces on a team-high 21 reception opportunities, which will be an area of emphasis moving forward.

“She did some nice things,” Cook said. “It’s her first college match. She’s going to get served balls because when you’re out there with Lexi [Rodriguez] and Laney [Choboy], you’re going to get served at. So she’s got to continue to get used to carrying a big load passing.” 

The third freshman starter was Choboy, who played in the back row for the other starting outside hitter, Lindsay Krause. Krause contributed six kills on .143 hitting and two aces while Florida transfer Merritt Beason tied Murray with nine kills, hitting .200 with five digs in a six-rotation role.

Sophomores Bekka Allick (five kills on .500 hitting, seven blocks, one ace) and Maggie Mendelson (three kills on .222 hitting, three bocks) started at middle blocker while junior captain Lexi Rodriguez finished with a match-high nine digs as the starting libero.

Utah State returned most of its lineup from an NCAA Tournament qualifier in 2022, but the Huskers still swept the Aggies 25-20, 25-17, 25-17 before an announced crowd of 8,436 at the Devaney Center. Nebraska hit .286 and held Utah State to .061.

“Utah State gave us some problems early on and I thought … we made some really good adjustments defensively,” Cook said. “Offensively, at times we got into a nice rhythm and then at times we kind of sputtered a little bit, but that’s typical of a first match against a good team. They were unleashing serves, so they gave us some really tough serves.”

Nebraska got off to a slow start in set one, falling behind 4-2, but the Huskers turned things around and took control with an 8-2 run. The Huskers extended their lead to six a few different times before a Murray kill sealed a five-point set win.

Nebraska hit .185 thanks to seven attack errors in the first set but held Utah State to .125 and Murray, Krause and Allick all served aces.

Set two followed a similar script with Utah State taking a 7-6 lead before a 7-2 Nebraska run. The Aggies kept it close for a bit before errors started to pile up, allowing Nebraska to pull away. Murray delivered the set-point kill in game two as well.

Nebraska hit .360 behind three kills from Murray and held Utah State to .029 including 10 attack errors.

The third set saw six ties and five lead changes early before the Huskers pulled ahead for good with a 4-1 surge to take 10-7 edge. Nebraska extended its lead to six before a 3-0 Aggie run drew the Huskers’ first timeout of the night. Nebraska regrouped during the break and closed the evening on a 5-1 run.

Nebraska hit .344 behind four kills on eight errorless swings from Beason in game three and held the Aggies to .032.

Nebraska will return to the court on Saturday evening to face Lipscomb as the Ameritas Players Challenge rolls on. SMU swept the Bisons (25-17, 25-16, 25-21) in the first match of the tournament Friday afternoon. Sophomore Jada DiVita led Lipscomb with eight kills on .316 hitting.

Cook said that the starting lineup still isn’t settled and that he planned to mix up the lineup a bit on Saturday. First serve is set for 5 p.m. and will be available to stream for B1G+ subscribers.

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