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Heartbroken Huskers Lose Senior Captain to Injury, Then Title-Clinching Match to Wisconsin

November 25, 2022

Coach John Cook said the No. 5 Huskers had a great couple practices leading up to its showdown with No. 3 Wisconsin. He thought the Huskers were ready to win a conference title.

Then they had their hearts ripped out on Wednesday when senior captain and key defensive contributor Kenzie Knuckles suffered a torn ACL, ending her season and her Nebraska career.

The Huskers did their best to rally without one of their leaders, but the Badgers played cleaner volleyball en route to a four-set win in Lincoln on Friday night.

“It was a really tough deal using Kenzie,” Cook said. “I think our players really, really tried to make up for it tonight and played a little bit frantic. We were playing really hard, but we were kind of uptight and weren’t very disciplined. We couldn’t put enough pressure on Wisconsin with our block and defense and transition … Wisconsin deserves a lot of credit.” 

Wisconsin (24-3, 18-1 Big Ten) took down Nebraska (24-4, 16-3) 25-21, 21-25, 25-21, 25-19 to clinch its 10th straight victory against Nebraska and fourth straight Big Ten title.

“Wisconsin played great,” Cook said. “They deserve to be Big Ten champions. I’m proud of our team, we’ve had three shots at championships the last year, which no other team in the Big Ten has done that. But we’re still second place to Wisconsin. They played great tonight.” 

Wisconsin hit .235 for the match led by Devyn Robinson’s 16 kills on .323 while Anna Smrek added 11 kills on .400 hitting in a dominant showing from the Wisconsin right side.

Lexi Rodriguez led the defensive effort with 17 digs. Nicklin Hames had 25 assists and non digs while Kennedi Orr added 17 assists and five digs.

Nebraska hit .200 and lost the service points battle 12 to nine as the Huskers had just one ace and nine errors. Kaitlyn Hord had a season-high 13 kills on .500 hitting and four blocks to lead the way for Nebraska while Lindsay Krause added 12 kills on .370 hitting. Bekka Allick chipped in nine kills on .273 hitting and a match-high six blocks. 

Ally Batenhorst finished with 10 kills, nine digs and five blocks in her first match as a six-rotation player, but she hit just .091 with seven errors, two service errors and one serve receiver error. Madi Kubik hit .000 with seven kills and seven errors but added 13 digs.

“I thought we sided out really well tonight and ran middle really well, but we had trouble killing the balls on the left and and when you get in long rallies, your left sides have to be able to to do something,” Cook said.

Cook described Knuckles’ injury as a “freakish, weird deal” near the end of practice on Wednesday and said he’d seen just two torn ACLs in his 23 seasons at Nebraska. With their middle back sidelined, Cook had Kubik and Batenhorst swap positions in the lineup and both played all six rotations.

“It completely changes our passing three rotations,” Cook said. “We changed our lineup to switch Ally and Madi so Ally would be in the front row and Madi would be more in the back row just because Ally hasn’t played back row. So we were just trying to leverage Madi who’s played back row all year. We made those changes and I think it affected Madi tonight, and not having her soulmate out there, it’s got to be really tough. We were a little bit out of sync at times, especially in chaotic plays. I’ve said all year Kenzie is the best middle back defensive player in the country; I really believe that.”

Batenhorst broke into tears when asked about Knuckles in the post-match press conference.

“We really look up to her so and she’s just a really big leader and cares a lot for our teammates,” Batenhorst said after taking a moment to comps herself. “It’s really hard.”

Wisconsin opened the match with a 4-0 run and led by as much as seven early on as the Huskers struggled to find an answer for the Badgers’ high-powered attack. The Huskers pulled within five a couple of times before Wisconsin stretched it back out. The Badgers used a 3-0 run to take their largest lead of the set at 22-14.

Nebraska built some momentum late in the set, however, using a 5-0 run featuring Kubik at the service line to pull within four at 22-18. The run included a double-block from Hord and Lauenstein on Wisconsin middle blocker Danielle Hart, who hadn’t recorded an attack error since Nov. 6 (four straight clean matches).

Three straight service errors (one each by Kubik, Wisconsin’s Gulce Guctekin and Rodriguez) gave Wisconsin set point. Lauenstein and Batenhorst recorded kills before Sarah Franklin finally ended it to give Wisconsin a 1-0 lead.

Wisconsin hit .400 led by Devyn Robinson’s six kills on nine attempts. Batenhorst matched her with six kills but also had three errors as Nebraska hit .286.

The Huskers carried the momentum over to the second set as Batenhorst opened play with a kill and a block assist for a 2-0 lead. Wisconsin settled in for a heavyweight fight from there as the teams traded blows throughout the set.

After 14 ties and seven lead changes, Nebraska used a 4-0 run including three straight Badger attack errors and a Rodriguez ace to take a 21-18 lead. Rodriguez missed on her next serve after a Wisconsin timeout, but the Huskers closed the set on a 4-2 including a game-point kill by Allick.

Nebraska hit .258 and held Wisconsin to .132. Nebraska forced Robinson into four attack errors after a clean first set. Krause led Nebraska with four kills in the set while the two Husker middles added three apiece.

Nebraska won three of the first four rallies in set three, but Wisconsin answered with a 3-0 run to take the lead, setting the stage for another back-and-forth battle. After 16 ties and seven lead changes, Nebraska looked to have pulled ahead with a block on Orzol, but one of the blockers clipped the net for a violation.

The violation triggered a 5-2 run for Wisconsin as the Badgers took a 22-19 lead. Allick scored on back-to-back rallies with a kill and a block assist to pull Nebraska within one and trigger a Wisconsin timeout, but Batenhorst missed her serve out of the break and Wisconsin closed the set on a 3-0 run to take a 2-1 set lead.

“We gave them a lot of easy points at the end of games,” Cook said. “I think game three, we’re right there and then we serve in the net and then we make a soft play and then get blocked. So it was just poor execution. We’ve got to execute better.”

Both teams hit .225 in the set, but Wisconsin had a four-point advantage from the service line with three Nebraska errors and one Badger ace. Krause had five kills on seven attacks in the set while Robinson matched her for Wisconsin.

Wisconsin made the first push in set four, using a 3-0 run to pull ahead 8-4, but Nebraska responded with four straight to tie it up.

The Badgers took over from there, however, as Nebraska miscues and tentative attacks began to pile up. The Badgers ripped off six straight to take a 14-8 lead before missing wide. The Badgers extended their lead to eight at 19-11 as the Wisconsin block gave Nebraska fits.

The Huskers made one last pushing, winning seven of the next 10 rallies to cut the deficit down to four at 22-18. The comeback ran out of steam, however, as the Badgers won three of the last four points to finish off the match.

Kubik got going late with five kills in the set and Hord added four, but Nebraska hit just .062 with 10 attack errors while Wisconsin hit .171.

“We’re definitely disappointed,” Hord said. “That’s not the outcome that we wanted. But I thought we had very good glimpses of us showing really amazing passion and playing for each other, so I know we have it in us. We just have to figure out how to make it more consistent. We’re just turning over a new leaf because we have an important game tomorrow, so we can’t dwell on it too long. But it’s a learning lesson; every win, every loss we learn from, so moving on to tomorrow.”

Nebraska will look to bounce back on Saturday night with the regular season finale against No. 9 Minnesota. The Golden Gophers (19-8, 14-5) beat No. 8 Ohio State in four sets on Friday. First serve is set for 8 p.m., and the program will honor its four seniors after the match.

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