After a difficult week for the Nebraska volleyball program following the death of graduate manager Dane Leclair, the Huskers had to channel their emotions and take the court at the Devaney Center on Friday to play against Rutgers.
The Huskers wore warm-up shirts with Leclair’s name on them and Nebraska held a moment of silence in his memory before the game during which Coach John Cook saw some tears on his players’ faces.
Normally something of a slow-starting team, the Huskers came out on fire and dominated the first two sets before finishing off the sweep in a competitive third game.
“I thought our team handled everything really well tonight,” Cook said. “I saw a few of them crying in the moment of silence and in warm-ups. It’s been an emotional week but I thought once the match started that they were able to get into volleyball mode. The first two games we did some nice things. I thought Rutgers played a little bit better game three, but really good win for us. We were pretty steady and I just thought they were enjoying themselves which I hadn’t really seen all week.”
The No. 8 Huskers (17-3, 9-2 Big Ten) beat the Scarlet Knights (7-15, 1-10) 25-10, 25-10, 25-20 in front of a crowd of 8,141. The Huskers hit .384 for the match and held Rutgers to .099. Nebraska had five aces to just three errors and out-dug Rutgers 47 to 33.
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun posted a match-high 12 kills on .455 hitting with seven digs and two aces. Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet added 10 kills on .400 hitting while freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik chipped in seven kills on 13 swings (career-high .462 hitting) and five digs.
Nebraska got strong productions from its middle blockers as sophomore Callie Schwarzenbach had nine kills on .368 hitting and junior Lauren Stivrins added eight kills on .375.
“Since our passing was amazing tonight, it was a lot easier for Nicklin [Hames] to set our middles a little bit more,” Schwarzenbach said.
Hames, the sophomore setter, finished with 36 assists, 10 digs and three aces and orchestrated a balanced offensive attack that featured her five main hitters all getting between 13 and 22 sets. Sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles finished with a match-high 16 digs and added six assists.
“We played clean volleyball,” Cook said. “We served and passed well. We were ball-handling well. So we were playing pretty clean, low-error. Game three got a little sloppy, but there’s just a natural let-down when you’re winning so easily … I think everybody got in tonight, so that was good. But I think the biggest thing is they worked through it because we did not have avery good serve and pass today. I think they were saving up for tonight to try to give a great effort tonight.”
The notoriously slow-starting Huskers were locked in from the opening serve, using an early 4-0 run featuring three kills by Schwarzenbach to pull ahead 6-2. Rutgers’ first kill of the night ended Nebraska’s run but soon after the Huskers hit the Scarlet Knights with a 3-0 stretch to make it 10-4.
Nebraska blew the game wide open from there with a 9-1 run to make it 16-5 before a serving error. Cook said he was somewhat surprised by their strong start.
“I challenged them before,” Cook said. “This is new territory for all of us and we’re going to have to see how we respond to this. You’ve got a couple choices in how you can do it. The other thing I told them was today Dane’s parents had to give a eulogy; can you imagine how hard that was? You guys just have to play volleyball tonight, so you can do it.”
Nebraska cruised to the finish from there, winning nine of the final 14 rallies of the set. Sweet delivered the winner on set point, tooling the Rutgers block for her fourth kill.
Schwarzenbach led Nebraska with five kills in the first set and Sun added four. Nebraska hit .500 with 18 kills while holding Rutgers to .000 hitting.The only two Nebraska attack errors came on Rutgers blocks. Cook said a strong offensive showing by Schwarzenbach is a game-changer for the Huskers.
“A lot of teams ignore her, and we always talk about her making them pay,” Cook said. “If we can run a middle attack, it just frees up our outsides tremendously. Otherwise they just forget about Callie and load up on our outside hitters. We’ve got to have five attackers and Nicklin be a threat to be a great team, and Callie’s one of those five.”
Nebraska opened the second set with an 11-0 run served by Hames before the Scarlet Knights got on the board with an attack error by Sun. Nebraska scored the next three points to stretch the lead to 11. Rutgers scored two in a row, but Nebraska locked back in and ripped off five straight. A successful challenge by Rutgers put an end to Nebraska’s run but the Huskers followed it up with two more points to push the lead to 17.
Nebraska took its foot off the gas and allowed Rutgers to take six of the next 10 rallies, but Nebraska finished it off with a kill by Sun. The Huskers hit .375 and held Rutgers to .077 with three of its five kills coming down the stretch. Sweet and Sun led the Huskers with four kills apiece in the set.
Rutgers carried whatever momentum it picked up down the stretch of game two into game three and pushed the Huskers early, pulling even at 5-5 for just the second tie of the night. Nebraska used a 3-0 run to pull ahead 8-5 before three straight sideouts. Back-to-back kills by Schwarzenbach and an ace by Hames pushed Nebraska’s lead to 12-7.
Rutgers made another run to pull within one at 14-13, but Nebraska responded with a 6-0 run served by Knuckles. Rutgers cut the deficit all the way down to two a couple of times but the Huskers did enough to complete the sweep. Cook used his double-substitution on match point and a tough serve by freshman setter Nicole Drewnick led to a Rutgers overpass and a smash by sophomore opposite hitter Anezka Szabo for her second kill of the night.
Rutgers had more kills in the third set (13) than in the first two combined (11) and hit .211, but Nebraska hit .286. Sun led the Huskers with four kills again, giving her four in each of the three sets.
Nebraska will return to the court on Saturday to take on rival No. 7 Penn State.
“Us and Penn State, we always go for it, we always go hard ever since I got here,” Sweet said. “It’s a rivalry that was long before I came. It’s just good energy. We’re going to go for it. Well-scouted teams, well-trained teams. It’s just a fun match because both teams can play really clean volleyball.”
The Nittany Lions are 17-3 this season and 10-1 in Big Ten play, one spot ahead of the Huskers in the conference standings. Outside hitter Jonni Parker leads the offense with 3.57 kills per set on .266 hitting and Kaitlyn Hord is a force in the middle, chipping in 2.70 kills per set on .444 hitting and 1.26 blocks per set.
“Typical Penn State,” Cook said. “They’ve got physical athletes, they’re relentless on defense, they’ve got a great libero — Kendall White — who’s their leader and flies all over the gym. They’re a top-10 program, top-five program, so they do everything well and they’ve got athletes.”
First serve at the Devaney Center is set for 7:30 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.