Despite some ups and downs and plenty of lineup experimentation, Nebraska is 5-0 through two weeks of competition. However, according to Coach John Cook, the the ante is about to go up as Nebraska is set two play two top-20 opponents this week.
“We survived the weekend,” Cook said. “We got better as the weekend went on. We’re starting to look like a volleyball team and starting to get in a rhythm, so that’s good. A lot of that starts with Nicklin (Hames) and I thought she just got better Saturday as the day went on.”
Hames missed the first weekend with an ankle injury but started all three matches on Friday and Saturday and orchestrated an offense that hit .387 over its last four sets (after hitting .182 in its first eight).
The Huskers moved up one spot in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll to No. 3. Nebraska’s next opponent, Creighton, swept last week’s No. 3 and reigning champion Kentucky in Lexington. The Bluejays jumped from No. 27 to No. 19 thanks the best start in program history (6-0), but Cook believes that ranking is underrating what the Bluejays have done.
“Creighton, I don’t know what they’re ranked this week but I’d vote them second,” Cook said before the AVCA released the poll. “They’ve had the most impressive preseason up to this point of anybody besides Texas. So we’ve got our hands full. It’ll be a great challenge. I’m sure there’ll be a great crowd up there Wednesday night.”
Creighton is the second in-state opponent Nebraska will play in less than a week after the Huskers fended off an upset attempt by Omaha on Friday, outlasting the Mavericks in five sets during the Ameritas Players Challenge.
“The thing that I always am thankful for and admire and respect is we’ve got two basically top-10, top-15 volleyball teams going at it in the state of Nebraska,” Cook said. “And then you throw in Nebraska-Omaha, who had a phenomenal weekend even though they were 1-2, but man they played great volleyball. They took two teams to five, including us, and then beat Georgia. So what a great weekend for them, just makes me proud to be a part of Nebraska volleyball in the state, from YMCA all the way up to the Division I colleges.”
Cook called Nebraska “the heartbeat of college volleyball in this country,” and is expecting to see a large crowd on Wednesday when the Huskers head up to CHI Health Center Omaha to take on the Bluejays.
“I don’t know what the crowd numbers are or anything, but we’ve got 8,000 people that want to see us play that don’t get to see us play in Devaney. So there’s probably 8,000 going up there. And then one of the reasons we go up there is that our fans in Omaha, or Council Bluffs, or western Iowa, they get a chance to come see us play. It’s also an opportunity for a lot of young girls and high school players to come and see us play, because obviously the CHI up there seats a lot more people. So it’s a great atmosphere.
“The last time we played I think it was 14,000 and it was great. It’s great. Again it’s a celebration for for these volleyball programs to be able to play in front of that on a national stage on FOX TV.”
The Bluejays are 6-0 with five sweeps and a five-set win over USC. Like Nebraska, Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth signed a terrific 2021 recruiting class and has two freshmen in her starting lineup, setter Kendra Wait and outside hitter Norah Sis (a Papillion-La Vista alumna). Wait is averaging 11.1 assists, 2.8 digs and 1.25 kills per set. Sis, a club teammate and close friend of Nebraska freshman Lindsay Krause, is leading the team with 3.65 kills per set on .283 hitting.
“They’re just very balanced,” Cook said. “They play good volleyball like they always do. They’re very balanced attacking. Their freshmen setter is does doing a really nice job. The Kentucky match wasn’t even close, and that was at Kentucky. Like I said, it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
First serve against Creighton is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday and FS1 will televise the match.
The Jays aren’t the only challenge Nebraska will face this week, however. The Huskers will host No. 20 Utah (5-0) at the Devaney Center on Saturday as well.
“We’ve had some great matches with them,” Cook said. “They have a great player, Dani Drews is worth the price of admission.”
The Utes dropped one spot in this week’s poll because the Bluejays leapfrogged them, but Drews, a fifth-year outside hitter, is averaging 4.72 kills per set on .308 hitting this season. First serve is set for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday on Big Ten Network+.
Texas (4-0) remained atop the poll this week while receiving 55 first-place votes. Wisconsin (4-0, nine first-place votes) held at No. 2. Ohio State (5-0), No. 6 last week, moved into a tie with Pittsburgh for No. 4. Purdue (4-0) moved up two spots to No. 6, Minnesota (1-3) dropped three spots to No. 13 and Penn State (5-1) dropped one spot to No. 18. Michigan (3-1) fell out of the poll after getting swept by West Virginia.
Nebraska’s final two nonconference opponents are both ranked inside the top 15. Louisville, coached by former Husker Dani Busboom Kelly, moved up two spots to No. 10 while Stanford climbed six spots to No. 14.
Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey earned her first weekly honor with the Huskers as the Big Ten named her defensive player of the week. Caffey didn’t play in Nebraska’s first three sets against Omaha on Friday as Cook gave other players an opportunity, but with the Huskers trailing 2-1, Cook went back to Caffey and she sparked the team to victory with six kills and seven blocks in two sets of work. She followed it with two strong performances against Georgia and Arizona State and averaged 1.56 blocks per set overall to go with 2.44 kills per set on .405 hitting.
Caffey is Nebraska’s first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honoree since Kenzie Knuckles on Nov. 4, 2019. Last week, Lexi Rodriguez split Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors with Ohio State’s Arica Davis.
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.