On Wednesday night, two top-20 volleyball teams will take the court to face off in front of what will likely be the largest crowd to view a match anywhere in the country this regular season.
If you ask John Cook, the match between Creighton (6-0) and Nebraska (5-0) at CHI Health Center Omaha will be matchup of two top-five teams. The AVCA Coaches Poll voters disagreed, ranking the Huskers third and the Bluejays 19th, but regardless of the number that ranking symbolizes the progress coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth has made with her program, elevating Creighton to a perennial NCAA Tournament team.
“Originally when we played Creighton, it was just to try to help their program, and now it’s become great matches,” Cook said. “I mean, 2018 we had a five-gamer; 2019 I think up here we went four really close games. Like I said, it’s a celebration of volleyball, a lot of in-state players, two great teams going at it. Creighton has been very close to getting to the Final Four; I can’t remember what years but I mean they were right there against Minnesota a couple times and so it just shows you the level of volleyball in the state. Kirsten has done a great job of building that program and they’re a national contender.”
Creighton has five Nebraskans on its roster including Lincoln native and Malcolm grad Jaela Zimmerman. Nebraska also has five Nebraskans on it roster including Omaha Metro natives Lindsay Krause (Omaha Skutt) and Rylee Gray (Elkhorn South). Senior setter Nicklin Hames isn’t one of those local players, but she enjoys the in-state rivalry Nebraska has developed with the school just 60 miles away.
“It’s really cool that they’re right down the road and I think there is some competition,” Hames said. “I think some girls know each other so that’ll be interesting, obviously a lot of fun, a lot of screaming hype through the net.”
Krause and Creighton freshman outside hitter Norah Sis (Papillion-La Vista) are close friends and were club teammates in high school, and Skovsende played with Krause at Skutt.
Each team has three players who were on the team when the two sides last squared off at CHI Health Center Omaha, in 2018. Hames is one of them on Nebraska’s side.
“I remember I was a little freshman and I was really scared because there was a lot of people,” Hames said. “I think there was like 14,000 and that’s a lot of people. I remember I think we went down 0-2 and we came back and won in five. Just the atmosphere was insane and I was telling them all about it today, like, we got to travel to Omaha, stay the night before and then play in the center. It was really cool and playing with divided fans was also very interesting. So I’m really excited to be able to play there again.”
Middle blockers Lauren Stivrins and Callie Schwarzenbach are the other two Huskers who played in that match three years ago. However, most of the Huskers got a chance to experience CHI Health Center just five short months ago as Omaha hosted the NCAA Tournament. However, with attendance limited to just over 4,000, it was a very different atmosphere than what the Huskers will likely face on Wednesday.
“It was really weird because you would like, get really hype about a point and you’d look around and it’s like a couple claps, like, ‘Yay!’ and your parents are just sitting there,” Hames said. “So it’s going to be exciting to actually have fans. Obviously, we’ve had fans in here but in that bigger arena where we played in Omaha, no one really got the full experience of that atmosphere [in the spring.]”
The Bluejays have swept five of their six opponents so far inlacing reigning champion Kentucky, who was ranked third at the time. The sixth match was a five-set win against USC. The Jays are hitting .288 led by Sis’ 3.65 kills-per-set average on .283 hitting. Zimmerman, who had 10 kills on .400 hitting in the 2018 match against Nebraska, is averaging 3.5 kills on .211 hitting and is second on the team with 2.85 digs per set.
Freshman setter Kendra Wait is impacting the game in a lot of ways as she’s averaging 11.1 assists, 2.8 digs and 1.25 kills per set. Libero Abby Bottomley, a transfer from High Point, is leading the way defensively with 4.25 digs per set and is tied with Wait for first on the team in aces with seven. The Jays have held their opponents to .145 hitting so far this season.
Conversely, the Huskers are hitting .244 and holding opponents to .115.
Creighton is the first ranked team Nebraska will face this season, and between young players finding their way and an injury set-back for Hames, Cook said the Huskers are behind schedule two weeks into the season.
“I feel like we’ve just started getting into a little bit of a rhythm on how we want to play,” Cook said. “We’re still trying to figure out who goes where. Nicklin is basically 10 days behind. So I combine all those things, I mean, we have a really high upside when we figure it out. That’s why I’m not happy or satisfied right now because I know what our upside is and we haven’t done that over a long period of time yet. We’ve done it in bursts but not for a long match like we’ll have to do Wednesday night and Saturday.”
After playing the Jays, Nebraska will host No. 20 Utah back at the Devaney Center on Saturday, then the Huskers will head to No. 14 Stanford next week before closing out the nonconference at home against No. 10 Louisville. Fourteen different players have seen the court so far this season for Nebraska as Cook has continued to experiment with different lineups, but he doesn’t want that experimentation to continue too much longer.
“I’d like to get a more simplified lineup but I don’t know if we’re there yet,” Cook said. “That’s what preseason is for, but by the Big Ten we’ve got to be in a pretty consistent lineup.”
Hames’ return should go a long way toward helping Cook figure out what his best lineups are. After working through some rust early, Hames had the Nebraska offense humming in the final match of the weekend against Arizona State as the Huskers hit .350 in a sweep.
“We have so much depth, every position,” Hames said. “It’s it’s really insane and I feel like Arizona State was really a little glimpse into what our offense can look like if it’s firing on all cylinders. I can’t remember what we hit but I feel like we hit for a pretty high percentage and the tempo was on point and we’re dangerous when we’re like that … That’s what our offense could be this whole season and we’re just going to keep carrying on the momentum from last week.”
First serve on Wednesday is set for 6:30 p.m. on FS1.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.