A career-high from freshman Ally Batenhorst and another big match from Madi Kubik sparked the 10th-ranked Huskers to a 3-1 win at No. 13 Penn State on Friday night, moving Nebraska into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
The Huskers (11-3, 5-0 Big Ten) took down the Nittany Lions (11-4, 4-1) 25-15, 22-25, 25-23, 25-17 in front of a white out crowd of 4,205 at Rec Hall in University Park.
“We knew it was going to be a really tough match,” Coach John Cook told John Baylor during his post-match radio interview. “I told you there’s gonna be a lot of long rallies and both teams are incredibly scrappy and fight for every point. Man, it had to be a great match to watch and listen to. Every point just felt like it was you were going to win or lose the match on every point. Great feeling between two great teams and the Huskers found a way to pull it out.”
The Huskers have now won 10 of the last 11 meetings between the two rivals.
“That’s mind-boggling to me, but like I told the girls, any win on the road and any win in the Big Ten is a great win,” Cook said. “But the way they played tonight made it a really special win because we haven’t been playing like this all year. We have been building it the last three weeks and it came out tonight. That was a great effort, so gutsy performance by the Huskers.”
The Huskers hit .244 and averaged 15.5 kills per set. Nebraska held Penn State to .176 thanks to some strong serving by the Huskers (eight aces and nine errors to Penn State’s one ace and nine errors). Keonilei Akana led the way with a season-high four aces and she did it without an error while adding 12 digs.
“They’re the least-aced team in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “But here’s the whole thing, if you want to stop Kaitlyn Hord you better serve tough, because we do everything right and she still goes right over us. She’s an incredible player, so that’s the only way you can slow her down, and we held her to 11 kills which is pretty good… Other than that it was just a serve mentality, and I kept telling them, ‘Attack with your serve, attack with your serve.’ Eight aces, nine errors against this team is a great effort on our part.”
Kubik led the Huskers in kills for the fifth straight match with 19, tying her season high, and she added 12 digs for the double-double. Batenhorst added 15 kills on .375 hitting. Lindsay Krause and Kayla Caffey chipped in 11 and nine kills, respectively, while Caffey added seven block assists. Lauren Stivrins was quiet for much of the night but came alive late with three kills in the fourth set to finish with eight on .467 hitting.
“Nicklin was setting a great go set tonight and those guys were taking big swings,” Cook said. “I loved it because they had an attack mode all night … We found ways to get kills and those guys kept taking big swings.”
Lexi Rodriguez led the defensive effort with 19 digs as the Huskers finished with 76 as a team, 18 more than Penn State. Kenzie Knuckles added 13 digs. Nicklin Hames finished with 12 digs and 49 assists.
“Both teams are exceptional defensive teams,” Cook said. “Both teams are exceptional out-of-system, getting good swings. That was some high-level volleyball tonight with all all the chaos plays, on getting swings, and they terminated a few, we terminated a few, but you didn’t see many free balls tonight.”
Nebraska set the tone right from the start, opening the first set with a 3-0 run. The Huskers stretched their lead to 8-2 thanks to some strong serving from Akana. Nebraska remained in control as back-to-back kills from Batenhorst stretched the lead to 14-5, then a good serving run from Knuckles made it 18-8.
Penn State dug into the lead with a 3-0 run, but Krause ended it with a kill and another serving run by Akana, including her second ace, allowed the Huskers to push the lead back to 10 at 22-12. Penn State shaved a couple of points off the lead, but an errant serve on set point ended it.
Kubik led the Huskers with six kills on .462 hitting and six digs. Batenhorst added four kills on .333. Nebraska hit .324 with 15 kills and just three errors while Penn State hit .100.
The second set proved to be much more competitive featuring 13 ties and six lead changes. Penn State jumped ahead early but Nebraska answered with a 3-0 run to take a 7-5 lead. Penn State jumped ahead 11-10, then the teams traded 3-0 runs. After Nebraska tied it at 14-14, the Nittany Lions scored four in a row capped by a marathon rally.
The Huskers fought back to regain the lead at 20-19, but a 4-1 run by the Nittany Lions gave them the advantage at 23-21. Back-to-back service errors gave Penn State set point at 24-22 and Penn State blocked Stivrins to even up the match at one set apiece.
After a clean first set, the Huskers hit just .103 in the second with eight errors. Penn State passed much better after the Huskers picked them apart from the service line in game one and hit .211. Krause led the Huskers with four kills on seven attempts.
Penn State used an early 3-0 run to pull ahead 7-3 in the this set, but the Huskers rallied to tie it up at 8-8, and the set followed the same script as the second one from there. Nebraska tied it up at 10-10 and 11, then finally pulled ahead 12-11 on kills by Caffey and Kubik.
Eight straight sideouts followed before the Huskers managed to string a few points together to pull ahead 18-15. Penn State pulled within one four different times then finally pulled even at 23-23, but the Huskers responded with monster kills from Stivrins and Kubik to take a 2-1 match lead.
Nebraska hit .243 with 18 kills including six from Kubik and five from Batenhorst. Penn State hit .281 but only managed to notch 12 kills.
Kaitlyn Hord opened the fourth set with a pair of kills, but Nebraska responded with a 6-0 run served by Knuckles. Penn State rallied to tie it at 6-6 and 7-7, but a 5-0 run served by Akana gave the Huskers control again and they never relinquished the lead.
Nebraska extended the lead to six a few times, then ended the match on a 3-0 run capped by an Anni Evans ace.
Nebraska hit .302 in the fourth behind five kills from Kubik. Penn State hit .143 thanks in part to five blocks for Nebraska.
“They’re pretty excited,” Cook said about the mood in the locker room. “The top teams we’ve played so far this year we haven’t beat, the ones that were ranked high. We lost to Utah, we lost to Stanford and we got smoked by Louisville, so this is really our first big win. And again, we have three freshmen out there playing in front of this and they’ve got the men’s volleyball team standing right there, talking to our servers or Ally and Madi and dressed up in goofy uniforms. So this is not an easy place to play and I thought they handled it really well.”
The Huskers will continue their road trip at Rutgers on Sunday. First serve in Piscataway is set for noon on Big Ten Network+.
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.