No. 5 Nebraska swept No. 12 Baylor in impressive fashion despite playing without All-American middle blocker Lauren Stivrins. The Huskers are headed to the regional final round for the ninth straight year.
“I think what I’m most proud of is that they played together and they played with a lot of heart and they played for each other, probably the most we’ve done all year,” Coach John Cook said. “When you do that, you don’t worry about anything else but just playing hard for each other and the team. That’s how teams play best.”
Stivrins is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury and played just two sets in Nebraska’s second-round sweep over Texas State on Thursday.
The Huskers swept Baylor 25-21, 25-17, 25-19 on Sunday afternoon while hitting .222 and holding the Bears to .141. Baylor star outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, the 2019 AVCA National Player of the Year, finished with a match-high 15 kills, but the Huskers made her work for those kills as she hit just .205.
“I think once we started taking away her tip shots and her throws, and when we suffocated her back-row attack — she had couple nice kills, which she’s going to get, but we kind of took away all the stuff that she likes to do that makes her so effective,” Cook said. “We took it away by starting to dig it, and once we saw it our floor defense was able to do a great job with that, and then our block got her a few times and we did a really good job in our back row. And then I think the other part of it was our serving — we were making it hard to get her the ball.”
Nebraska out-blocked Baylor eight to four and the Huskers dominated from the service line, finishing with eight aces and just four errors while the Bears had eight errors and three aces.
“One thing we’ve learned is when you get in these bigs matches at this time of year you’ve got to be a great serving team. I thin that probably was the difference in this match, was Baylor’s serving — they missed a lot early — and we were really pressuring them with our serve. I can only think of a couple times where we weren’t pressuring them and I don’t think they felt pressure. We always talk about having six servers out there that can go out and do that and I thought all six servers did an awesome job.”
Senior Lexi Sun led the way on offense with 12 kills on .345 hitting and she also contributed five digs and a career-high five aces.
“Lexi needed to play big tonight, and she did,” Cook said. “We’re going to need to keep having that from her. It was a really good sign because she struggled last match and it was good to see her play like that because we’re going to need it, big-time.”
Kayla Caffey chipped in seven kills on .385 hitting and three blocks while Callie Schwarzenbach, starting in place of Stivrins, had a match-high five blocks and three kills. Sophomore Kenzie Knuckles led the defensive effort with 13 digs.
Setter Nicklin Hames did a bit of everything with 31 aces, 11 digs, four kills on .500 hitting, three blocks and one ace. Senior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet also praised Hames for her leadership, especially with her co-captain sidelined.
“Nicklin always is a leader and she always has energy and always has a big presence, but she definitely took ahold of everybody’s energy and steered us and led us to where we needed to be,” Sweet said.
Nebraska looked out of sorts early on as Baylor raced out to a 10-5 lead and drew a timeout from Coach John Cook. At that point, the Huskers had four attack errors, two serve receive errors and one service error.
“We called a timeout and after that it just seems like we settled down and went, and just took off from there,” Cook said. “Probably should have called it a couple points earlier, but I wasn’t expecting us to struggle like that.”
Whatever Cook said in the huddle seemed to work as the Huskers started chipping away at the lead with much cleaner play. The Huskers used a 4-0 run to tie it up at 13-13, then after six straight sideouts, the Huskers pulled ahead 18-16 on a roll shot kill by Sun and a block by Schwarzenbach.
Baylor called a timeout and forced a Nebraska attack error, but the Huskers stretched the lead out to four at 24-20 thanks in part to poor serving by the Bears. Baylor saved one set point, but Madi Kubik finished it off on the next rally.
After the poor start with one kill and four errors, the Huskers finished strong with 11 kills and two errors the rest of the way to hit .286. Baylor hit .364 led by Pressley with six kills on nine swings, but the Bears had five service errors and gave up four aces to the Huskers.
Baylor scored first in game two, but the Huskers ripped off five in a row after that capped by a Hames ace, Nebraska’s fifth of the match that drew an early Baylor timeout. The Bears scored two straight out of the break but the Huskers responded with a 4-0 run to take a 9-3 lead.
Nebraska extended its lead to 12-5, drawing Baylor’s second timeout, and then to 17-8 as Caffey made her presence felt both offensively and defensively. Baylor got no closer than seven the rest of the way as a Pressley attack error on set point sealed the win for Nebraska.
The Huskers hit .241 and held the Bears to .038. Baylor had three more service errors and Nebraska tacked on three more aces. Sun, Caffey and Sweet had three kills apiece in game two while the Huskers held Pressley to four kills and three errors on 14 attempts.
Baylor used a 3-0 run early in set three to pull ahead 5-3, but the Huskers answered with a 3-0 run of their own. After ties at 6-6 and 7-7, Baylor pulled ahead 13-9, drawing a timeout from Nebraska. The Huskers reeled off five straight with Sun at the service line after play resumed to take the lead again.
Baylor tied it up briefly at 14-14, but Nebraska used a 5-1 run to pull ahead for good. The Bears cut the deficit to two at 20-18, but Sun put down back-to-back kills to draw Baylor’s last timeout and then Caffey terminated after play resumed to push the lead to five and the Huskers finished off the sweep three rallies later.
The Huskers hit .190 in the third set and held Baylor to .098. Pressley got off to a quick start with four kills on her first five swings, but Nebraska limited the All-American to one kill on her last 11 attempts.
Nebraska will face the winner of No. 4 Texas and No. 13 Penn State in the main arena at CHI Health Center on Monday afternoon, the first time the team will get to play in front of fans beyond the groups of friends and family that have attended matches all season.
“So excited,” Sun said. “It’s been so long and we were looking forward to getting to do that against Penn State at the end of our season and obviously didn’t get the chance to. We’re used to having a lot of fans and we’re just excited to be back.”
The Huskers will play in the second match and will start 45 minutes after the conclusion of game one which is set for an 11 a.m. CT start.
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.