No. 5 Nebraska brought back all of its starters from last year’s team, but the Huskers rolled out a very different lineup in Friday’s season-opening sweep of Indiana in Bloomington.
Missouri transfer Kayla Caffey started next to Lauren Stivrins at middle blocker in place of junior Callie Schwarzenbach while sophomore Riley Zuhn played ahead of senior Jazz Sweet at opposite hitter. On his postgame radio appearance, Coach John Cook said the six weeks of training in December and January led to that decision.
“Those guys have both been doing really well and we felt like they earned a starting opportunity tonight,” Cook said. “Riley hasn’t played a volleyball match really in two years, and when she did it was mostly in the middle. We knew she might be a little shaky out of the gate, but I thought she smoothed out and did some really nice things. She’s a game-changer at the net. She’s a big block. Kayla Caffey, same thing. It started off a little shaky and then we got her going pretty good. She’s a dynamic attacker.”
Freshman defensive specialist Keonilei Akana played for Zuhn in the back row, filling the role vacated by Megan Miller who transferred to Northwestern during the offseason.
The new look produced the same results, however, as Nebraska swept a young Hoosiers squad 25-22, 25-20, 25-17.
“We did some really, really good things and we were just a little inconsistent with some errors,” Cook said. “We just had a hard time getting momentum, but as you saw as the match went on we hit over .400 both games two and three and did some really nice things. We out-dug them by quite a bit and our serving picked up at times; it sputtered a little bit. But our out-of-system was really good.”
After something of a slow start, the Huskers picked up steam as the match went on and hit .317. Lexi Sun led everyone with 11 kills on .429 hitting and four aces. Stivrins added nine kills on .429 hitting and two blocks. Caffey and Zuhn recorded six kills apiece in their first starts while combining for seven block assists.
Defensively, Nebraska held Indiana to .140 hitting while keying in on outside hitter Breanna Edwards. The team’s leading returning hitter finished with two kills and eight errors on 21 attempts (minus-.286 hitting).
“We matched up Riley Zuhn on her, so I think she had her all three rotations,” Cook said. “It’s about match-ups sometimes, and like I said Riley changes hitters. She was the one person we had video on.”
Tommi Stockham — one of five freshmen who played for Indiana — led the Hoosiers with nine kills on .200 hitting.
Nicklin Hames and Akana led the Huskers with nine digs apiece while sophomore Kenzie Knuckles chipped in eight. Nebraska out-dug Indiana 36 to 21.
Caffey notched her first kill on her first swing as a Husker, then a couple rallies later she recorded her first block as the Huskers got off to a good start. Nebraska pulled ahead 13-6 midway through the set before the Hoosiers came storming back, using a 4-0 run to cut the deficit to two.
Indiana shaved the lead down to one at 17-16 before Nebraska responded with a 5-0 run featuring Kubik at the service line, creating enough separation for Nebraska to hold on for a 25-22 win. Caffey and Zuhn teamed up for the block on set point.
Sun had five kills on seven swings, but Nebraska hit just .139 as a team while holding Indiana to .121.
Indiana struck first in the second set, but Sun took over from there with a kill and three straight service errors, giving the Huskers the lead for good. Indiana pulled within one at 10-9 and 11-10, but Nebraska responded with a 4-0 run with Sun serving.
The Huskers held onto a cushion of at least three points the rest of the way as they took a 2-0 lead in the match. Nebraska hit .429 in the second set with Caffey notching four kills on six attempts.
The Huskers came out firing in the third set, using a 5-0 run to pull ahead 15-10 thanks to five kills on their first eight swings and negative hitting by the Hoosiers. Illinois responded with three straight out of a timeout, but Nebraska controlled the action the rest of the way pulling ahead by as much as nine. Stivrins put the final touches on the sweep with a match-point kill.
Nebraska hit .480 while holding Indiana to .071 in the third set. Sun and Stivrins had four kills apiece to lead the way.
The Huskers and Hoosiers will run it back on Saturday at 5 p.m. CT. The game will be streamed 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.