A year ago, Nebraska completed its nonconference slate 9-1, hitting .282 and holding its opponents to .117.
The schedules are obviously different and so are the rosters, but this season, Nebraska went 8-1 in the nonconference, hitting .235 and allowing .135. The defensive mark is tied for the best in the Big Ten, but the offensive one is 12th.
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said she pays attention to that hitting percentage and isn’t satisfied with where it’s at.
“I just always want to put my hitters in the best positions and if we’re hitting that low, that means I’m not doing a very good job,” Hames said. “I take a lot of responsibility for that because it’s my team and like Coach says, I’m driving the car. If the car is speeding off the road, that’s on me. Just getting it down with all the hitters, what they want, what set they want, just so we can clean that up a little bit and cut down a little bit on our errors.”
What kind of car is this Nebraska volleyball team?
“We’re a red Ferrari,” Hames said.
So far this season, Nebraska hasn’t approached its top speed. Hames said it’s the little things that are holding them back.
“The service aces, serves in the net, letting them get on those runs,” Hames said. “In Nebraska volleyball we play fast, we go after it, we’re relentless on defense. I think we’ve seen a little bit of the defensive side but we haven’t really seen it from the offense, just like going after it and attacking it, so I think if we see more of the attack from the offensive side it will look a lot more like a red Ferrari.”
That Ferrari was running low on gas on Saturday. Nebraska swept Wichita State to close out nonconference play, but Coach John Cook said he wasn’t happy with the team’s mindset or effort, and he let them know after the match.
“We feel like we can play better and we can be better,” Hames said. “It wasn’t Nebraska volleyball. It was the little things like serving in the net and getting aced. I think we put huge details on those things and so when they happen it’s kind of a bummer. Those are the things we kind of came into this week focusing on and it was a lot better.”
Hames said the team talked abut what they needed to do to bounce back this week, narrowing their focus and focusing on a few key areas. According to Cook, the difference has been stark.
“I think it’s been awesome,” Cook said. “They’ve worked really hard, they’ve been really focused. Last week didn’t feel good so I think they were committed to change that this week. As I told them, they did a nice job, they prepared really well, and now we go start he Big Ten.”
Nebraska will open Big Ten play on Friday at No. 20 Illinois (5-4). The Illini have three wins over ranked team (two over No. 19 Tennessee, which has since fallen out of the top 25, and one over No. 7 Marquette) but they also have three losses to unranked teams.
Last season, Cook had to replace All-American setter Kelly Hunter. Hames proved to be the answer as she stepped in and led the Huskers to the national championship match as a freshman. This season, former Nebraska assistant and current Illinois head coach Chris Tamas faced the same challenge after Big Ten Co-Setter of the year Jordyn Poulter’s career came to an end.
“Poulter and Kelly might have been two of the best setters ever in the Big Ten; I guarantee you they’re in the top five of all time,” Cook said. “It is a big transition and it’s tough. What makes it even tougher is those players know who they’re replacing and they try to live up to those expectations and that sometimes gets in their way.”
Redshirt freshman Diana Brown has stepped in for Poulter and is averaging 10.33 assists per set, though Illinois is hitting .238 as a team, just ahead of Nebraska in the Big Ten.
Illinois also lost third-team All-America middle blocker Ali Bastianelli, but outside hitter Jacqueline Quade is back after leading the Illini with 4.24 kills per set last season. This season, she’s bumped that up to 4.64 kills per set, first in the Big Ten.
After playing the Illini, Nebraska will make the short trip from Champaign to Evanston to take on Northwestern (9-3). Like Illinois, Northwestern features a big-time outside hitter who carries a heavy offensive load in freshman Temi Thomas-Ailara (.3.98 kills per set, .310 hitting).
“The good news is you know where a lot of sets are going,” Cook said about Quade and Thomas-Ailara. “The bad news is you have to stop them. We like the good news because we know where it’s going; now we just need to get a good game plan and execute and slow those guys down.”
First serve against Illinois is set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday on BTN. The Northwestern match is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday on BTN+.
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.