Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Ready for Step Up in Competition against No. 5 Minnesota

February 16, 2021

While many back in Lincoln spent Valentine’s Day with their significant others, the Nebraska volleyball team had to celebrate the holiday together as their flight back from New Jersey after beating Rutgers on Saturday got delayed. The Huskers didn’t make it home until Sunday night.

“That was kind of a bummer,” Lauren Stivrins said. “I know we were all excited to come back and obviously Valentine’s Day was the next day, so that was kind of sad that the girls with boyfriends didn’t get to hang out with their significant others, but I think that’s what makes our team so special is we make the most of situations like that.

“We hung out that night and bunch of the girls went to get ice cream together or just like walk around, I don’t know, kind of bond like that. Then Lexi [Sun], Callie [Schwarzenbach] and I and some of our GAs had like a little movie night in our film room and we were just hanging out down there with snacks and stuff. Then we had a great practice the next morning at Rutgers before we got on the plane to leave.”

The Huskers didn’t get to practice on Monday because of the flight delay, though Cook was hopeful that the power at the Devaney Center would remain on in the midst of the rolling blackouts in Lincoln to allow the Huskers to get a practice in on Tuesday. This is a big week for Nebraska.

“It’s time to step up,” Cook said. “The honeymoon of the season is over. It’s grind time now.”

The three teams Nebraska has faced thus far are a combined 3-31 so far this season. Nebraska’s next two opponents — No. 5 Minnesota and No. 1 Wisconsin — are both 8-0. The Golden Gophers will visit Lincoln this weekend after taking down No. 8 Penn State 3-1 and 3-2 in a pair of matches in Minneapolis this past weekend.

“We’re looking forward to from here on out we’re playing all ranked teams and rivals,” Cook said. “It’s going to get fun and it’s going to be super competitive, so I think our players are looking forward to it. This is why you play in the Big Ten. We know volleyball’s really tough and the next two weeks are the No. 1 and No. 5 ranked teams in the country, so we’ll get tested and see where we’re at. It will be fun.”

Stivrins said she feels her team is ready for the step up in competition, though she doesn’t expect practice to be any different that normal this week.

“I don’t think we’re going to be doing anything too special or crazy,” Stivrins said. “I just think we’re going to go in and kind of tweak some things that we need to work on and keep in mind how Minnesota runs. They’re always very good about running a fast offense and stuff like that, so just preparing ourselves for that. Other than that I just think we need to focus on the things that we can control and there were a few times this weekend where I feel like the game kind of got out of our control, so focusing on our side of the net.”

Though the Huskers beat Rutgers twice over the weekend, Nebraska did drop a set to the Scarlet Knights for the first time since 1978, in large part because they struggled to pass the ball at times. Cook called that part of their game “average” to this point.

“The serving we’ve been going against has been really good as well, and I’ve noticed everybody we’ve played so far has served really well and I think we’ve served really well,” Cook said. “So I think the serving’s at a higher level, so we’re going to have to adjust as passers a little bit on how we’re going to pass those tough serves, because we’re seeing it from everybody.”

The Huskers dropped a set to Indiana in week three as well, but Nebraska’s other four matches have been sweeps. Meanwhile, Minnesota has already played in three five-set matches including two against Purdue.

“I think both teams should be fired up because they’re big matches,” Cook said. “I think mentally, who can grind through two matches and play really hard and stay with it. That to me is going to be the big test. Minnesota has already played Penn State and Purdue, so they’ve been in some five-game battles. I’ll be interested to see how our team responds and then how we respond the next night, and they’re going to have to bring energy because there’s no fans to carry them. It’s an interesting dynamic, so we’ll see how we do. Again, I think we’re looking forward to it. These are the types of weekends that will bring out the best in us.”

For the first time this season, Nebraska won’t be playing back-to-back. The Huskers and Gophers will face off on Friday night as usual, but the second match won’t happen until Sunday morning.

“It just impacts the next week because it means we can’t train Monday, which I don’t like,” Cook said. “We just had to do that because we were stuck at Rutgers. Minnesota also had to play Sunday night which is brutal as well. I feel bad for Penn State, who knows what time they got home Sunday night? It kind of gives you a day in between, it makes for a long road trip for whoever’s on the road. But we’ve done this before, we’re used to it and it’s part of the deal.”

Minnesota returned five starters from last year’s team that went 27-6 overall and 17-3 in Big Ten play, tied for second place with Nebraska and Penn State. The Gophers advanced to the Final Four before falling to Stanford, the eventual champion.

“They’ve got a setter now that has played every match,” Cook said. “Last year they were kind of shuffling setters, so there’s some consistency there. Like always, they’re very low-error and they’ve got some great arms with [Taylor] Landfair’s a great arm and [Stephanie] Samedy is probably playing at the best player in the country level, so we’re going to have our hands full.”

Landfair, a 6-foot-5 freshman outside hitter, was the top-ranked recruit in the 2020 class and has made an immediate impact, averaging 3.17 kills per set on .244 hitting. Samedy, a 6-foot-2 senior opposite hitter, is leading the Gophers with 4.29 kills per set on .257 hitting. She’s recorded 19-plus kills in each of Minnesota’s last four matches including a season-high 28 against Purdue on Feb. 5.

“She hits out of the front row and the back row, so you’ve got to defend her six rotations,” Cook said about Samedy. “We’re usually not used to that in women’s volleyball. Men’s volleyball for sure, everybody hits out of the back row. That’s where you have to be aware of where she is and we’ve got to figure out what her tendencies are and how we want to defend her, both in the front row and the back row. That’s what our job as coaches is to prepare our team to try to limit her kills as much as we can. It’s a good challenge when somebody’s playing that well. We’re fired up to take on that challenge, but she’’s playing at a really high level and the last few weeks she’s been phenomenal.”

Freshman Melani Shaffmaster, a top-20 recruit, stepped right into the starting setter role and is averaging 9.81 assists and 2.90 digs per set. Junior libero CC McGraw is second in the Big Ten in digs at 4.29 per set.

First serve on Friday is set for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network. Sunday’s match will start at 11 a.m. CT, also on Big Ten Network.

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