Last year’s Huskers did not serve and pass like a typical John Cook team, and that was one of the biggest reasons the Huskers fell short of a fifth straight Final Four.
Cook said heading into the season that he thought his team was much improved in that area, and as we approach the end of the regular season, the numbers have backed that up.
Through 14 matches and 49 sets, Nebraska is averaging 1.37 aces per set (and 0.64 access per error). Last season, the Huskers averaged just 1.05 aces over set and 0.53 aces per error. Cook said their serving numbers are better according to their own grading as well, especially those for the two sophomores who struggled in that area as freshmen..
“Our two weakest last year were Madi [Kubik] and Kenzie [Knuckles],” Cook said. “They both have upgraded big-time. They’re putting up some pretty big numbers, close to where we want them to be. I think Kenzie is a little ahead of goal, Madi’s real close.”
Last season, Knuckles tied for the team lead in errors (48) while only averaging 0.17 aces per set (20 aces in 119 sets). This year, Knuckles actually has more aces (11) than errors (eight), and is up to 0.22 aces per set.
“She’s a stud,” Nicklin Hames said about Nebraska’s libero. “She always gives 100% and she’s a hard worker. With her serving, it’s really hard to stop because she serves a short ball and then a deep ball and then in between people. So when you’re preparing for her serve you have to prepare for a bunch of different styles of serve, which makes it really hard for the other passers to pass. I’ve thought she’s done a great job. She’s really fiery and I love playing next to her. I think everyone on the team has improved so much, and she has as well.”
Kubik is still a bit error-heavy (17 errors, eight aces) but has improved her average from 0.12 aces to 0.16 and her aces per error ratio from 0.33 to 0.48, and the Huskers have had some big scoring runs with her at the service line.
Sun is leading the Huskers with 16 aces (0.33 per set, up from 0.21 last year).
“Lexi’s always very dangerous server, especially if she gets hot,” Cook continued. “Nicklin’s a great server. We gave Lauren an opportunity; she missed a few but we scored really well in her rotation serving, so she’s got a great serve when she believes in it. We’re trying to put six great servers out there so you pressure teams every rotation. They’ve worked hard on it, we work hard on it and its a huge priority for us.”
The Huskers have certainly improved, but Nicklin hames still sees room for growth in terms of consistency.
“The serving game has been a battle for us this year and I think a lot of people individually, especially me, like I have struggled really trusting my serve in certain moments,” Hames said. “That’s been a huge emphasis for us these past couple weeks is really trusting our serves and going back and thumping it. When we get teams out of system, we’re really hard to stop and that’s when we win games, when we serve and pass really well. I’ve seen everyone really pick up their serving and I think that’s going to help us a lot this weekend, next weekend and then going into the tournament.”
Hames is tied with Knuckles with 11 aces, averaging 0.22 per set, which is where she was last year when shelled Nebraska with 26 aces. However, as a freshman she was second behind Mikaela Foecke with 40 aces, averaging 0.30 per set. She described serving as a “love-hate” thing currently.
“You want to have a great serve, but at the same time you don’t want to make an error,” Hames said. “I think we’re trying to get to the love-love part of it where you’re just going to go back there and you’re going to trust it. Coach has been saying this thing, ‘mano y mano,’ so it’s like you versus the passer. So we’re trying to switch that mindset to let’s go back, let’s trust it, let’s thump it and if we miss it, that’s OK. Right now especially for me, and maybe for some other people, the missing part is kind of overriding the ‘I’m going to go after it.’”
Cook said Nebraska’s highest-scoring rotations this season have been rotation four with freshman Keonilei Akana at the service line and rotation two with Sun back there. Akana serving that well has been particularly impressive considering how much the freshmen struggled in that same situation a year ago. Akana is second on the team with 0.31 aces per set, and she has four fewer errors than the team leader in Sun.
“For a freshman, she’s doing great,” Cook said. “She brings it, she competes. That kid’s fearless; love her. There’ve been some matches where we would have given her MVP if we had one.”
Cook mentioned giving Stivrins a chance to serve, which she did in both matches against Iowa after not doing it much most of the season. Stivrins had eight errors in six sets, but she also had two aces and served a couple of big scoring runs.
“It makes me excited,” Hames said about seeing her co-captain back there at the service line. “She has a really good serve, she thumps it, she goes after it. I think it’s kind of funny her first serve back at Iowa she foot-faulted. But she’s been doing great in practice and in the game she’s been doing great. I think she had a couple aces and I’m excited to see here back there serving. She also can play defense. I think she had three or four digs, a little save, so it just brings a lot of energy. Any time she’s in the game we’re fired up, we’re excited. She brings so much energy to the team so just to even have her in for that little extra rotation is really cool.”
Nebraska has taken a big step forward as a serving team, but as Hames said the Huskers are still focused on getting better as they gear up for a postseason run. Nebraska is currently fifth in the Big Ten in aces served versus aces allowed differential, narrowly behind Purdue and Wisconsin.
Nebraska has four more matches to continue fine-tuning their serving, and then the NCAA Tournament begins.