Nebraska’s defense carried it to an 8-1 nonconference record, but after an up-and-down start to the season offensively, the Huskers have hit their stride in conference play.
The Huskers (15-2, 7-1 Big Ten) are first in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage both in Big Ten play (.139) and overall (.137), and now they’re first in hitting percentage as well since conference play began at .294, up from .235 during the nonconference. Nebraska has hit .280 or better in six of its eight league matches so far.
“We’re passing a little bit better, we’re ball-handling better, our transition numbers are really up, which means we’re digging the ball where we can score points,” Coach John Cook said after practice on Wednesday. “We call it first contact; our first contact has gotten better as the season’s gone on. That’s probably the biggest reason.”
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles, who is first on the team in digs and second in serve receptions, is excited to be playing her part in Nebraska’s improved offense as one of its key passers.
“It feels great, obviously, because Coach always talks about how serve and pass is where the game starts,” Knuckles said. “I just know that if we can get a good pass, we can give our hitters opportunities. It feels pretty good.”
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames is at the wheel for Nebraska’s offense, which she called a red Ferrari a month ago as the Huskers were in the midst of their offensive struggles and preparing to begin conference play. Hames wasn’t happy with her performance at that point, but since then she’s boosted her assists per set by from 9.91 to 11.54 (second in the conference) and is leading the league’s best offense.
“She reminds me so much of Lauren [Cook-West] when she played,” Cook said. “They just have such a great feel for the game and where to put the ball and what tempo to put it at and when to fire it long distance, when to make an easier set. She’s a playmaker. I try not to give her too much information and just let her play on instincts. She plays best when she does that. It’s hard to explain it, but she just has great instincts.”
Cook said Hames is putting her hitters in great spots, but they’re also making great decisions. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik took home the Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Week awards after putting up 32 kills in two wins last week. Juniors Lauren Stivrins, Jazz Sweet and Lexi Sun have all taken turns leading the Nebraska attack as well since Big Ten play began.
“That’s one of the reasons that our numbers are up because [Kubik’s] numbers have been up,” Cook said. “Jazz’s numbers were up for a while; they’ve been down the last couple. Lauren’s numbers are way up and Lexi’s numbers are way up. You combine all that, that’s why you see the total numbers. But it’s a team thing and we need all those guys firing on all cylinders to be where we want to be.”
Cook doesn’t care much for the conference’s weekly awards and said that, free off that performance, Kubik struggled mightily during Wednesday’s practice. However, Cook said he's pleased with her steady growth.
“She had a good weekend and we did well,” Cook said. “But we recruited Madi to come in here and take Mikaela [Foecke]’s spot and she’s trying to live up to that. This weekend she did some really good things and we need to continue to have her do that. She’s carrying a big role. Not many freshman six-rotation outside hitters are playing on top teams.”
Unfortunately for the Huskers, Hames has missed practice this week while dealing with an illness, which isn’t the first time she’s been sick this season.
“I’ve never seen a year when so many people are sick on our team and in our athletic department and other sports,” Cook said. “I don’t know if it’s the weather or what it’s been, all the rain. We’re giving them vitamins, turmeric, cherry juice, all that. We’ve just had a lot of bugs going through the team.”
Cook said he was hoping to get Hames back at practice before the Huskers hit the the road for their weekend matches, but in the meantime freshman Nicole Drewnick got a chance to set with the starters.
“She did well,” Cook said. “She’s not Nicklin, but she’s pretty good. I think she’s excited; she got to run the A-side today. She did well.”
Cook gave the Huskers Monday off from practice, allowing them to recharge their batteries, and he said he was pleased with how they returned to the court on Tuesday.
“Great,” Cook said. “They were excited to be back. We had three PRs yesterday in testing our vertical. That’s a really good sign. That’s Husker Power, that’s taking a couple days off, that’s showing that they’ve recovered and they’re strong … That’s exactly what we wanted.”
This weekend’s road trip to Indiana and Purdue will be a homecoming of sorts for Knuckles and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller. Knuckles is from Yorktown while Miller is from Alexandria. The two towns are separated by about 15 miles, and both are just over 100 miles from Bloomington and West Lafayette.
“I’m looking forward to it a lot,” Knuckles said. “I’m excited to see everyone and play for my family and my friends … It just means a lot, to get to prove myself to them. They don’t get to see me play very often, especially my friends, so it’s important to me.”
Knuckles, who spent her off day sleeping, watching Netflix and carving pumpkins, is expecting a big crowd of supporters at the Purdue match.
The Huskers will open the weekend at Indiana (12-9, 1-7) on Friday. First serve is set for 7 p.m. on BTN. The second match will be Nebraska’s first rematch of the season as the Huskers will take on the No. 20 Boilermakers (12-5, 4-4) just 10 days after beating them in four sets at the Deviancy Center.
“We’ve got to be ready to make adjustments,” Cook said. “They’ll do something different, we’re going to do a couple things different, so the team’s got to be ready to make adjustments.”
First serve at Purdue on Saturday is also scheduled for 7 p.m. 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.