The final week of the nonconference season is here for No. 4 Nebraska volleyball. The preseason — as its often called in volleyball — has been a slow build, featuring increasingly challenging tests each week for the young Huskers.
This week brings with the toughest task yet — and likely one of the most difficult Nebraska will face all the season — as Nebraska heads west to face a veteran Stanford squad ranked fifth after a 7-0 start to the season.
“Pretty much two years ago, we played this same team,” Coach John Cook said. “I don’t know if they’re seniors or juniors or what they are now, but we went four with them out there and we had some chances to win a game that we kind of let get away from us. We knew we were going to have a lot of young players, a fairly new team, a large recruiting class, so this schedule was designed to build up to week four here, which will be Stanford and Kentucky. This will be great prep week as we head into the Big Ten.”
There are six players still on the Stanford roster who played against Nebraska two years ago and 10 who played in the team’s meeting in Lincoln last year. Lindsay Krause and Lexi Rodriguez are the only current Huskers who played in both of those matches.
Nebraska lost both of those matches in four sets, and the previous three with Stanford as well. Nebraska’s last win over the Cardinal happened in 2008.
The Huskers are 7-0 and and have only dropped one set all year, but Creighton is the only ranked team they’ve played to this point. The Huskers lead the national in opponent hitting percentage by a significant margin at .052, but Stanford is sixth nationally offensively at .327.
“I think we’re on a really good path,” Cook said. “Now the level of competition is going up. The size of the athletes, this will be the biggest team we’ve played all year at Stanford. They’re having a great season and we’re going on the road. So it’s a west coast trip and I want to see our team respond and play Husker volleyball and compete. That’ll be the message.”
Nebraska is facing a quick turnaround from Saturday’s win over Long Beach State to Tuesday’s match at Stanford, but junior opposite hitter Merritt Beason said the team has done a good job of locking in and preparing for each of its opponents so far this season. Beason said doing so once again on Monday will be the key to taking the court with confidence on Tuesday.
“I think something that has been really big for us has just been our consistency,” freshman setter Bergen Reilly said. “We have lost one set in what six, seven games? So I think that that’s been huge for us. We haven’t had this big roller coaster. We’ve been very consistent. I think that we’re very happy with that, especially with having so many new people. That could have gone very differently.”
One of the developments from the weekend was junior setter Kennedi Orr making her debut as a serving specialist after watching each of the first six matches from the bench. She served 12 rallies and recorded five digs. Moving forward, it appears there will be an open competition between Orr and Maisie Boesiger for that serving sub role.
“We’ll see if she keeps it up, but if she can come in and will points for us, she’s going to get a lot opportunities,” Cook said after Orr’s debut. “I loved her demeanor and how she competed tonight. That’s why you saw some great plays and some big runs.”
Saturday’s win over Long Beach State was also Beason’s most efficient match as a Husker to this point as she finished with nine kills on .350 hitting to go with eight digs and three blocks. Beason also led Nebraska in kills against Creighton (17) and Kansas State (10), though errors (nine and four) dragged down her hitting percentage. Cook and Beason both said they tweaked some things with her approach in recent matches and the changes have paid off.
“During preseason, we had kind of changed my approach to start more inside and that wasn’t really working the best for me,” Beason said. “So Coach and I talked about it and we decided to move it back out a little bit wider just because, for me, it’s a little more natural that way; having the ball come all the way over my shoulder is a little hard for me sometimes and I’m not the best at it, so it’s easier for me to come in at a wide angle. So we made that switch again these past few games and it’s been working really well.”
After letting it defense carry the load early, Nebraska has climbed all the way up to 20th in the country in hitting percentage at .286 with five players, Reilly included, hitting over .300. Beason, Lindsay Krause and Bekka Allick, the three main rotation players below that threshold, have all shown signs of improvement recently as well. As a freshman, Reilly is setting a diverse, balanced and efficient offense so far this season.
“I think just every day in practice or in games, that connection just gets stronger and I just get more comfortable with that,” Reilly said. “So I think that the offense has been really flowing, and obviously it can always get better. I think something that I’m improving on a lot just day by day and working on a lot is my blocking and defense.”
Stanford will truly test the Huskers’ ability both offensively and defensively with its size and talent. The Cardinal features a 6-foot-6 middle blocker in Sami Francis, a 6-foot-5 opposite hitter in Kendall Kipp, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter in Caitie Baird and a 6-foot setter in Kami Milner among others.
Kipp is the reigning Pac 12 Player of the Year and a first team AVCA All-American, and she’s leading the team with 3.95 kills per set on .302 hitting while adding 1.0 block per set. Baird has missed some time because of injury but has been strong at 3.15 kills per set on .344 hitting. Sophomore pin Elia Rubin earned All-Pac 12 honors as a freshman last year and is off to a great start this season as well, averaging 3.65 kills per set on .287 hitting.
Middle blocker McKenna Vicini is averaging 1.39 blocks per set while Francis is adding 1.04 blocks to go with 2.2 kills per set on a .408 hitting percentage. Senior libero Elena Oglivie is leading the defense with 3.65 digs per set while Miner is orchestrating the offense at a high level with 11.57 assists per set, fourth nationally.
Stanford’s lone loss came in a sweep to current No. 2 Florida, though Baird did not play in that match. The Cardinal also has wins over No. 6 Texas, No. 9 Minnesota and No. 19 Ohio State, dropping a total of one set in those three matches.
First serve at Maples Pavilion Tuesday is set for 8 p.m. CT on ESPN.