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Huskers Close Out Competition Portion of Brazil Trip in Rio de Janeiro

June 08, 2023

Nebraska wrapped up the competition portion of its tour through Brazil this week with a pair of five-set matches in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday and Wednesday.

First, Nebraska swept the U21 Brazilian National Team 25-21, 25-18, 25-20 but agreed to play two more sets afterward. The Huskers changed their lineup and won the fourth set 27-25 but dropped the fifth 14-16.

Then Nebraska took on the Brazilian Military Select Team featuring some Brazilian National Team players and pulled off a 3-2 come-back win (25-23, 25-27, 16-25, 25-19, 15-10).

Unfortunately, the live stream for the first match only included the first three sets, and technical difficulties during the second game meant the stream didn’t start until midway through the third set, giving us an incomplete picture of how both matches went as a whole.

Even so, these two matches offered a much tougher test than the three against U19 teams last week did, and thus provided more opportunities to learn and evaluate where things seem to stand for this deep and talented team still trying to settle on a lineup. After giving everybody a chance to play and switching up lineups in Belo Horizonte, Coach John Cook stuck with the same primary group for both matches in Rio, with some noteworthy adjustments.

The biggest takeaway is that freshman Bergen Reilly was the setter for the first three sets against the U21 team and for all five sets against the Military Select team. Junior Kennedi Orr only played in the two extra sets the Huskers played against the U21 squad. 

Across the roughly nine sets of action I was able to chart for Reilly, she averaged 12.9 assists per set and chipped in five kills with three aces and six service errors. Reilly’s ability to run a well-balanced, unpredictable offense is truly impressive — she will set anyone at any time and put the ball right on the money consistently. I saw Nebraska run plenty of middle (both quick sets and slides) as well as consistently set up hitters for back-row attacks rather than loading up on sets to the pins.

While I think there’s definite room for improvement with her blocking, defense and serving, Reilly’s mastery of setting appears to have her in the lead as Nebraska looks for a new starting setter.

Unsurprisingly, Merritt Beason looks to have the right side spot locked up as she played the first three sets against the U21 team and all five against the Military Select. She was spectacular in the first match before struggling a bit more in the second. The U19 teams had no answers for her and across the nine sets I tracked, she averaged 3.56 kills per set on a blistering .591 hitting. She was solid at the net defensively, making up for her offensive struggles with three blocks against Military Select. She does have to clean up her serving a bit as I marked down seven errors to just two aces and Cook had Maisie Boesiger (who had four aces and no errors during her opportunities that I saw in Brazil) serving for her by the end of the last match.

Beason has a powerful arm who can terminate at the pin as well as from the back row, and she has a lot of experience playing all six rotations. Nebraska appears to have gotten a good one in the Florida transfer.

Lexi Rodriguez continues to be the libero and continues to do Lexi Rodriguez things. Not sure I need to spend many words on her. Laney Choboy’s time will come.

The other positions look a bit less clear-cut.

At middle blocker, Bekka Allick has been outstanding in Brazil and looks to be in line for a monster sophomore season. She had six blocks and terminated on six of her seven swings in roughly two sets of work I saw against the Military Select team after nine kills on .467 hitting in three sets against the U21 squad. Overall, she averaged 3.2 kills per set on .565 hitting and 1.3 blocks per set with five aces to five service errors in 10 sets of work I got to see.

Allick managed to terminate in a lot of different ways — spikes, slides, tips, overpass smashes — showing an improving arsenal of shots and ability to read the defense and find a way to put balls down. She looks to be MB1.

MB2 still seems to be up in the air, through freshman Andi Jackson likely has a lead in that race. Jackson started the match against the U21 team and played the first three sets at least. Maggie Mendelson got the start against the Military Select team, but Jackson replaced her midway through the third set, though she too struggled offensively (not that I was able to see how Mendelson played in the first two sets).

After meeting little resistance from the U19 teams last week, Jackson had another strong showing in the first Rio game before recording four errors and just three kills against Military Select. Still, I had her at 2.33 kills per set on .408 hitting and 1.17 blocks per set in 12 sets of action as she continued to show off her massive vertical leap and powerful arm.

Mendelson was spectacular last week against the U19 times, terminating on almost every swing she took, but I didn’t get to see her first two sets against the tougher competition on Wednesday.

As I’ve written before, the outside hitter position battle looks to be the most interesting of all of them, and I think we still have a long way to go before Cook has his answer there. The teams seemed to play by international rules in Rio which include fewer substitutions. As a result, Cook let all of his pins play six rotations and serve, getting a thorough evaluation of their all-around games.

Freshman Harper Murray got the longest look of the bunch as she started both matches in Rio. While you’d like to see her keep the errors down a bit more than what she did (she had two five-error matches in Brazil), the arsenal of shots she displayed to go with her athleticism and power was incredibly impressive for a freshman. I had her at 3.56 kills per set on .250 hitting with seven aces and eight service errors in nine sets. There were a few hiccups here and there in terms of serve-receive and passing, but she shows a lot of promise as a six-rotation player.

Lindsay Krause got the start at the other outside hitter spot against the U21 team but struggled mightily in the first set before Ally Batenhorst replaced her and finished the first three sets. Batenhorst had eight kills on .400 hitting with a pair of aces and a block.

Batenhorst started the second match, but by the time the stream began Krause had already replaced her. Krause had four attack errors in the roughly two sets of work she saw after that, but she also notched seven kills and three blocks and provided some tough serving that helped give Nebraska control in set five.

If Murray really has taken strides toward locking down a starting spot, that would leave the two juniors battling it out for the other one, and I’m not sure what traits Cook will prioritize with that selection. Krause has a track record of terminating at a high level, particularly in the postseason, and showed some promise from the service line in Brazil. Batenhorst has a head start in terms of playing six rotations and looks to be improved as a hitter. These Brazil matches are also just one tiny piece of the puzzle as Cook and his staff have data from every practice they’ve held throughout the spring and summer, so there’s a lot we as outsiders haven’t gotten to see that will play a significant role. As we saw in these last two matches, who starts also may not necessarily be who finishes; playing time will be earned every single day.

Cook’s going to have some tough calls to make once we get to August, but he appears to have several talented options to choose from, which is the best kind of problem a coach can have.

With their matches out of the way, Nebraska will continue training and experiencing Brazil for the duration of the trip. The Huskers will depart late Tuesday night to return home on Wednesday.

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