LINCOLN, Neb. – The No. 1 Nebraska volleyball team passed its latest test in Albuquerque with a tournament sweep of the Lobo Classic, and now they will turn their attention to their own tournament this weekend as the Huskers will host the Ameritas Players Challenge on Friday and Saturday.
Nebraska swept Montreal in an exhibition game on Thursday, downed Arkansas in three sets Friday and wrapped up the classic with another sweep of host New Mexico. Kadie Rolfzen was named tournament MVP while Andie Malloy and Kelly Hunter joined her on the all-tournament team.
“We did a pretty good job down in New Mexico,” Coach John Cook said. “We had a fun time playing in the Pit … cool place. We’re on to our tournament this weekend. We’re playing two matches on Friday because football we anticipated would be a night game; it got moved to the afternoon, so we’re going to play two on Friday and then we’re going to play after the football game Saturday night.”
The Huskers will take on Montana State Friday at noon and then will return to the Devaney Center for a 7;30 p.m. match against Gonzaga. Nebraska will wrap up tournament play on Saturday at 8 p.m. against in-state rival Creighton.
“It’s always fun playing Creighton because there’s always the in-state pride,” senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes said. “They’re always going to give us their best shot and I think they did really well this past weekend, so they have some confidence in them.”
Creighton dropped a five-set match to No. 4 Kansas before sweeping TCU and Chattanooga to finish second in their Bluejay Invitational.
“Creighton has had some heart breakers against Kansas and USC,” Cook said. “They’re always fired up to play us and we had a good matchup there last year. It will be another tough match. It’s a big match for them and it’s equally as big a match for us.”
Cook said the Huskers, who haven’t dropped a set since the first one of the season, are still building to where they need to be to make a run at the Big ten title. However, the Lobo Classic provided an opportunity to take another step forward.
“It’s always a work in progress and we have to continue to get better every week all the way through the rest of the season,” Cook said. “Every time you play there’s stuff to work on that stands out. The good thing about New Mexico is they had a big crowd, they came out and played really well, so it was a really good test for us to be on the road against a team that was really fired up to play us. We responded really well, so I think that was good because we really hadn’t been in that situation yet.”
It wasn’t all positive from the classic, however, as Cook wasn’t pleased with the team’s play it its 25-19, 25-15, 25-21 win against Arkansas on Friday.
“We played very poorly against Arkansas, very poorly,” Cook said. “I think I might even was almost ready to throw my clipboard. But again, we won. We have a standard we’re trying to get to and stay at and do it for a long period time, which we’re going to have to in the Big Ten. New Mexico, we took their best shot and then we really put it on them, which was good to see. But we have a lot of things we can improve on. We still made a few too many errors this week. I don’t want this team to get to the point where they think they can just turn it on when they want to, because that isn’t going to work in the Big Ten.”
One of the players who is charged with making sure the Huskers don’t become complacent is Wong-Orantes, who Cook said is the team’s “on-court leader.”
“She’s a big-time coach,” Cook said. “I call her now ‘Coach Justine’ in practice. Sometimes when we’re going over stuff, why we do things and why other teams do things, I say ‘Justine I’m just talking to you because you want to be a coach; I don’t care if anybody else listens, I’m just sharing this with you in case you’re going to go into coaching, these are all good tidbits for you.’ Sometimes we have our private conversations amongst the team.”
Wong-Orantes embraced the role early, but said it has been a bit of a learning process. As a libero, she is the leader of the defense, and she also has experience orchestrating an offense as she played setter in high school.
“I think before my time here, just being a setter allowed me to [lead] naturally so that’s definitely given me an advantage of being a leader,” Wong-Orantes said. “Learning a ton, whether that’s from my teammates or coaches, it’s just been a process.”
Wong-Orantes stays in touch with former Husker Kayla Banwarth, one of the liberos on the U.S. National Team, and Cook had high praise for Wong-Orantes he said she will have a chance to follow in Banwarth’s footsteps.
“I think Justine’s better than Kayla was at this stage in their careers here at Nebraska,” Cook said. “If she’s not better, she’s very close.”
>> Kills may be the flashy stat and offense is fun to watch, but Cook often mentions passing and defense as the key to the Huskers sustained success. As the player charged with leading the way in those areas, Wong-Orantes said she takes great pride when she hears that.
“It’s cool to hear,” Wong-Orantes said. “I take a lot of pride in that because we’re the ones that allow the hitters and the setters to make a big play. Coach always says dig or pass makes a kill, so we take big pride in that. We want to see our hitters execute, so when we get a good dig and we see them get a tremendous kill, we go crazy because it feels like we started that.”
>> Kadie Rolfzen has already carved out an incredibly decorated career for herself in Lincoln, and she’s off to a tremendous start to her senior season.
“I think she’s blocking better, she’s passing better, she’s digging better, definitely serving better – just look at her serve stats. Attacking, she’s always been pretty good at that,” Cook said. “I think the biggest adjustment for Kadie is she’s been really consistent, and I think she realizes that she can take over matches. Whatever we need her to do, she gets it done. I like her confidence, her presence on the court. She’s really matured. She’s almost like a pro in a way – she knows what she has to do, she goes about her business, not too high or too low.”
>> True freshmen Lauren Stivrins, a middle blocker, and Hunter Atherton, a setter, have yet to play for the Huskers this year. However, Cook said they aren’t guaranteed to redshirt this year.
“We take it day by day,” Cook said. “If those guys are going to help us, then we’re going to play them. If not, then we’ll try to not play them so we can redshirt them.”
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.