Last weekend presented the first true challenge for the No. 4 Huskers. No. 5 Minnesota punched them in the face on Friday night and Nebraska didn’t have an answer in a 3-1 loss. Two days later, however, the Huskers controlled the play from start to finish in a sweep of the Golden Gophers.
“I think Minnesota was our first game where we kind of felt a little bit like we can’t just pull it together a little bit, we need to pull it together all the way,” sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles said. “So I think we got to see a little bit of that. We see it all the time in practice and Coach tells us we just need to make sure we show what we can do during games. Minnesota on Sunday was a great opportunity to show that we can do that during games and we can play as a unit and I think when we do that we are unstoppable.”
Nebraska elevated its play in all facets between the first and second matches against Minnesota, but one of the biggest areas of improvement was first contact. The Huskers did a much better job of handling what the Gophers threw at them offensively and getting the ball where it needed to go, namely in the hands of setter Nicklin Hames.
“It would be like a football team rushing for 100 yards Friday night,” Coach John Cook offered to illustrate the difference from one match to the other. “We rushed for 300 on Sunday morning. That would be the difference, giving you guys an example of that. We also didn’t get aced once, so that was really good … Just a different mindset and we handled their serves really well.”
The key to running a great offense lies not in accurate setting (though that’s important) but in the pass before the pass that leads to the kill. If the setter has to chase all over the court to get under the ball because the back row players can’t control where it’s going after a serve or attack from the other team, it limits where she can send the ball. A good team can’t have a weak link in that back row.
“It’s a group thing, because if somebody starts struggling and gets tentative it affects everybody,” Cook said. “The passing group, you have to have everybody working together, knowing who’s got what ball, having great communication and when any part of it breaks down it breaks down everything. They did a great bounce-back Sunday and that’s how we’ve been passing in practice. We’ve been doing really well, so it was good to see that so they know they can do it in a match against a good team and against good servers.”
Fans in the stands tend to react most to a big kill, but on the court, the hitters and setters make sure to acknowledge the ones that make their connection possible.
“After every kill or even if they don’t get a kill they’ll turn back and say ‘That’s a great pass, do it again,’” Knuckles said. “Or if it’s not a great pass, we’re the first people to be like ‘We’ll get you a nice pass for the next kill.’ There’s an appreciation for both sides.”
Knuckles stepped right into the libero role as a true freshman last season. Though she experienced plenty of ups and downs like all freshmen do, she led what was the best defense in the Big Ten by a significant margin, at least according to opponent hitting percentage. This season, she’s looked to take her game to another level, starting with her on-court demeanor.
“One of my goals this year was emotional stability on the court,” Knuckles said. “I think for being a libero, you kind of need to be consistent. You’re on the court a lot. Our leaders — Nicklin, Lauren [Stivrins], Lexi [Sun] — do a great job of leading out team and I know that sometimes they’re also our leading scorers and stuff like that too. I think making sure to be emotionally stable for the back row, for the passers and just being reliable is important.”
A consistent theme from press conferences to this point is players speaking about the style changes the coaches have made in the way they play led by new/old assistant Tyler Hildebrand. The recurring phrase is “creativity.”
“As a team we’ve learned so much from last year,” Knuckles said. “We’re playing different volleyball in general and I think all of us have grown tremendously technique-wise and we’ve learned so much, but we’re also trying to master what we’ve learned. I think that comes with Tyler coming in as a new coach. Not getting where we wanted to last year, I think we all just kind of put our best foot forward and decided that we were going to try new things and I think we’re all doing a great job of that so far.”
“I think our team as a whole, we’re trying to be more creative and show that we’re not just going to pound balls and we’re not just going to get digs, we’re going to kind of do things a little bit differently,” Knuckles continued. “You can see our outsides, they’re trying slap balls into the block or work on power tips or stuff like that. Just continuing to build new skills within volleyball.”
Her job in particular doesn’t come with a whole lot of room for creativity. She’s charged primarily with keeping the ball off the floor by any means necessary. However, she said she’s been working on some different things in practice including setting with her hands rather than just bump-setting so she can be more well-rounded as a player and ready for those out-of-system plays where she needs to get the ball to a hitter.
Knuckles and the rest of Nebraska’s passers will have to be at the top of their games this weekend as the Huskers travel to Madison to take on the top-ranked Badgers. Wisconsin swept Nebraska all three times they faced each other last season. However, Knuckles said Cook hasn’t showed the film form those matches despite all the production both teams returned.
“We stay in the present for the most part,” Knuckles said. “I definitely think it motivates us. I think it helps us kind of stay in the mindset of we have nothing to lose, so just going out there and playing our hearts out and doing what we know and what we train for.”
Wisconsin has five attackers averaging better than 2.5 kills per set, and all five of them are hitting .260 or better. With the reigning Big Ten Setter of the Year in Sydney Hilley running the show, Nebraska’s defenders will have to be ready for the ball to come at them from anywhere on the court.
“I think it goes both ways with our blocking and also our defense,” Knuckles said. “Our blocking is doing so well up to now and I think that they’re going to do a great job as well. Defensively, just making sure that everyone’s ready for every ball and just being gritty and getting the ball up.”
The Badgers are 10-0 this season and have only dropped two sets all year. The Huskers are 7-1, and last weekend’s matches against Minnesota showed them how locked in they have to be to beat one of the country’s best. Focus should not be an issue this weekend.
“We’re super excited,” Knuckles said. “We’re super stoked. We just want to go out there and play Nebraska volleyball like we know how. We practice super hard and we just need to trust our training and do what we know best.”
First serve in Madison is set for 7 p.m. on Friday on Big Ten Network.