Friday may have been senior night, but it was a freshman who provided a spark off the bench as the No. 11 Huskers took down No. 15 Penn State in a sweep on Friday night.
Whitney Lauenstein hit .500 with five kills and two blocks in the last two sets as Nebraska closed out its home regular season slate with a 25-14, 25-23, 25-23 win in front of a crowd of 8,437.
“She has been phenomenal in practice,” Coach John Cook said about Lauenstein. “She’s gone to another level the last couple of weeks, so I’ve been looking for an opportunity to get her in. We put her in against Maryland. She had an awesome week of practice and I just I see her confidence growing. So I was not surprised that she played like that tonight. She was playing fearless and that’s how she’s been in practice.”
Nebraska (20-6, 143 Big Ten) hit below .215 for the eighth straight match, finishing at .186, but it didn’t matter thanks to a dominant defensive effort as the Huskers recorded 56 digs and 10 blocks while holding Penn State (19-8, 12-5) to .088 hitting.
Madi Kubik led the way for the Huskers with 12 kills on .163 hitting. Lexi Sun added eight kills, a block and an ace while fellow senior Kayla Caffey chipped in seven kills on .636 hitting. Lauren Stivrins led the defensive effort at the net with seven blocks while adding six kills and an ace.
Nicklin Hames led Nebraska with 14 digs and 38 assists while Lexi Rodriguez and Keonilei Akana chipped in 13 digs apiece.
Penn State’s leading attacker, Jonni Parker, finished with a match-high 14 kills, but she hit just .195 and All-Big Ten middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord was held to five kills on .125 hitting.
Nebraska had four aces and six errors from the service line while the Nittany Lions recorded just one ace and eight errors.
“I thought [our serving] was really good,” Cook said. “What did Hord hit tonight? There you go. So there’s the leading hitter in the conference and we held her to .125. The way you stop her is you’ve got to serve tough and we were relentless with pressure tonight serving them.”
Nebraska opened the night with a dominant defensive effort as Penn State didn’t record its first kill until the 15th rally and spent most of the set hitting in the negative. Nebraska jumped out to a 4-1 lead then steadily extended it the rest of the way.
The Huskers pushed their advantage to double-digits for the first time at 17-7 before cruising to the 11-point win.
Nebraska recorded four blocks and 17 digs while holding Penn State to minus-.097 hitting with eight errors. Parker had four of the team’s five kills. Nebraska hit .242 behind five kills from Kubik and four from Sun.
“The Huskers were fired up tonight,” Cook said. “That first game was one of the best games I’ve seen in 20 years of how we played. We were almost flawless.”
Penn State got off to a much better start in set two, recording a kill and a block on the first two rallies, then pulling ahead 8-4 with five of those points coming on Nebraska attack errors. The Huskers cut the deficit to two before Penn State broke a streak of sideouts with a 3-0 run, taking a 15-10 lead at the media timeout.
“Their defense was pressuring us and we were feeling it,” Cook said. “When you when you aren’t getting kills it and then you aren’t passing and you get into these long rallies and you can’t kill the ball, you start trying to do too much.”
Nebraska continued to give aways points as Penn State extended its lead to seven at 22-15, drawing a timeout from Cook. After the stoppage, he sent Lauenstein in to replace Lindsay Krause (three kills, three errors) at opposite hitter.
The game changed at that point. Nebraska scored four in a row to put pressure on the Nittany Lions. Hord snapped the run with her first kill of the night after recording errors on three of her first six swings, but the Huskers dominated play the rest of the way, scoring the last six points. The highlight of the run was a solo stuff from Hames that got her teammates and the crowd fired up.
“Honestly, when I blocked it, for a first second I had to like take a — because I didn’t think it happened,” Hames said. “I maybe thought it ended up on our side, but then I was like ‘No, I blocked that.’ So then I turned around and I got hype and said a few choice words I shouldn’t repeat.”
Hames set Stivrins for a kill to tie it up at 23-23 on the next point and Penn State called a timeout, then Parker hit long on the next two rallies to give Nebraska a 2-0 match lead.
“I think I remember us talking like, ‘Hey, we’re not losing this set,’” Hames said. “And I think we just found a way to come back and win those long rallies and will those points. We’ve been talking about that a lot, just really focusing our attention towards the ends of games and willing points to our side and I thought we really did that. The crowd got into it and it’s really hard to play in Devaney when the crowd gets going, so they helped out a lot tonight. I’m just super proud of how composed we stayed towards the end of that second set.”
After hitting negative most of the set, Nebraska climbed to .067 thanks to the 10-1 closing run. The Huskers had 12 kills and nine attack errors. Penn State hit .022 with 10 kills and nine errors including five blocks by Nebraska. Lauenstein had a block and a kill during her stint in the second set.
“She brought a lot of energy and she’s a fierce competitor, so when she comes in I think it amps up the level and we know she’s going to go after it,” Hames said. “So it pumps us up a little bit.”
Cook stuck with Lauenstein at opposite to start the third set and she opened play with a kill. Soon after, Penn State surged ahead with a 5-1 run to build a four-point advantage. After trading sideouts, Nebraska used a 3-0 run to cut the deficit to one, then another 3-0 run to pull ahead at 13-12.
Nine straight sideouts followed before a Nebraska net violation wiped away a kill and gave the Nittany Lions the lead again at 18-17. Six ties and three lead changes followed as the teams traded blows, leading up to a 23-all game.
Hames went to her freshman pin-hitter in Lauenstein to break the tie and she delivered with a kill, then Sun sealed the sweep with an ace.
With illness in the Rutgers program resulting in a forfeit for Saturday’s scheduled match, Friday was Nebraska’s final regular season match at the Devaney. The program recognized its five seniors — Sun, Stivrins, Hames, Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach — after the match with most of the crowd sticking around to celebrate them. Hames, Caffey and Schwarzenbach could still choose to return next season but wanted to participate in the ceremony.
“That was a really good match,” Cook said. “The fans got their money’s worth, some really good volleyball. Both teams did some incredible things tonight. Our team and our crowd was really into it. It was just an electric night and then the senior night, just every every time that happens — which I don’t think we’ve had one in a few years, maybe three, I can’t remember — but the fact how many stay for senior night and honor those seniors, that’s a it’s a lifetime memory for them.”
The Huskers will close out the regular season with a tough road trip next weekend as they visit No. 4 Wisconsin on Friday and No. 6 Purdue on Saturday with the Big Ten title up for grabs.
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.