LINCOLN, Neb. — Friday presented a new challenge for the No. 1 Nebraska volleyball team, but the Huskers passed it like they have every other test this season: with flying colors.
Nebraska is hosting the Ameritas Players Challenge this weekend, and as part of that the Huskers had to play two matches – one at 11:30 a.m. and the other at 7:30 p.m. – on Friday. The Huskers swept Montana State in the first game then did the same to Gonzaga in the night cap.
The Huskers (8-0) hit .485 on the day and also served up 11 aces to just 12 errors. Once again, junior setter Kelly Hunter spread the ball around and her decision-making played a big part in the Huskers’ incredibly high hitting percentage.
“I thought she did a nice job of distribution, location; she made a couple of adjustments in the match tonight, did a really nice job and our passing and ball-handling puts her in a really nice position to be able to do all those things,” Coach John Cook said.
The Huskers knocked off the Zags 25-15, 25-12, 25-11 in front of 8,277 fans Friday night. The Huskers got off to a slow start and even fell behind early at 4-2, but the gradually pulled away for a 10-point win in what proved to be the closest set of the match.
“[It was] just getting back in a rhythm,” sophomore outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said. “We don’t usually play two games in a row so that’s a little bit different for us and a different routine and figuring out where we are and what we’re doing.”
In the second set, the Huskers again pulled away midway through the set. However, with Nebraska leading 17-11, Gonzaga won a challenge on a play that was originally called a kill by Briana Holman but was reversed to a block that hit off Holman, making the score 16-2. That seemed to fire up Holman, as she took over and racked up three kills and two blocks during a 9-0 run to end the set.
“It might have fired her up because she go blocked earlier on that and then that one, and I think she decided she wasn’t going to get blocked anymore,” Cook said about Holman.
Nebraska made short work of the Zags in the third to complete the sweep. Foecke finished with a game-high 12 kills on 22 swings for a .455 hitting percentage, but Nebraska also had four others hit .500 or above.
“I think that basically all of us are working so hard and wanting the ball and that opens up a lot of areas for all of us,” Foecke said. “They always concentrate a lot on our middles because they’re so good and that definitely opens up a lot of space for us and Kelly’s sets were definitely there for us.”
A new facet of the Nebraska attack showed itself in the match as outside hitter Annika Albrecht found her touch from the back row and finished with three kills on four attempts.
“It’s a huge weapon for us,” Cook said. “It hasn’t been very successful … We worked on it this week and it was good to see her rip some balls because that really makes teams pay for trying to gang up on our hitters. When you have to deal with that, it’s a game-changer for a team to try to defend us.”
Earlier in the day, the Huskers dispatched Montana State 25-15, 25-5, 25-16 to start off the weekend on the right foot.
Cook gave senior outside hitter Andie Malloy the match off against the Bobcats, and in her place sophomore Olivia Boender went off for a career-high 16 kills on 22 swings.
“Today was the Ka-Boender show,” Cook said. “She did a really nice job and I kept telling Kelly to set her; she was feeling it. It was fun to watch her have a really good match. You could see Montana State, they try to play with speed, so it took us a while to adjust to that but we did a pretty nice job once we got a feel for that and took care of business. Probably the highlight was how big of a crowd we had for a noon match.”
The official attendance was 7,922. Boender didn’t know that she was going to get 22 sets heading into the game – she had only taken seven swings all year to that point. But when the defense focused on taking away other options Boender’s number was called time and time again and she made the most of it.
“You never know when your time is going to be, you never know when he’s going to put you in,” Boender said. “So I’m ready all the time for when I get my chance to go in.”
The second set was complete domination. The Huskers opened with a 6-0 run and sided out all six opportunities. By the end of the set, Boender led the entire Montana State team by herself, 12 kills to 11.
The Huskers finished with 42 kills on 68 swings with just five errors, good for a hitting percentage of .544. The early start time didn’t seem to have any impact.
“I told them I was really pleased because that would have been an easy match to lose focus and they played very clean,” Cook said. “I think it was a really nice job by our players. I think this was something new for them, playing Friday at noon and seeing how big the crowd was. It was really a fun match to be a part of.”
The Huskers will wrap up the Ameritas Players Challenge with a match against in-state foe Creighton. The Jays have pushed some of the top teams in the country to five sets but haven’t been able to get over the hump and sit at 6-5 after sweeping both Gonzaga and Montana State on Friday. Freshman middle blocker Megan Ballenger and junior middle blocker Marysa Wilkinson had huge games for Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, and Cook said he was impressed by what he saw from the Bluejays.
“I’m very impressed with how they played today,” Cook said. “They remind us a lot of us. They’re good at blocking, good at serving, they’re balanced in their attack, they have a nice transition, the setter’s doing a nice job for them. We’re expecting a really tough match. They’ll be good. They’ve gone five with USC and Kansas.”
Nebraska swept the Jays in three close sets in Omaha a year ago. First set at the Devaney is at 8 p.m.
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.