Lexi Sun took home Big Ten Player of the Week honors after Nebraska’s pair of sweeps at Illinois over the weekend, but she wasn’t the only Husker who went off. Middle blockers Lauren Stivrins and Kayla Caffey combined for 36 kills on .571 hitting and 13 blocks in Champaign.
Stivrins is still leading the Big Ten in hitting at .490 while averaging a career-high 3.42 kills per set. Caffey, the transfer from Missouri, is chipping in 2.08 kills per set on .411 hitting.
“I feel great about how they’re hitting,” Coach John Cook said. “We made a big emphasis on it. They’re putting up big numbers and getting a lot of attempts, which is great and makes us harder to defend. Our outsides should probably be better because of that and we’ve got to make sure we’re fixing that, getting more production from our outside hitters. We’ve been working on it. We had time to work on it and it’s paid off.”
Cook made improving the middle attack big emphasis this offseason. He’s also gone with the more offensive-oriented Caffey over returning starter and blocking specialist Callie Schwarzenbach for most matches this season.
“In the big matches last year, we didn’t set much middle and we didn’t have much of a threat,” Cook said. “We know to beat good teams, you have to have a balanced attack and your middles have got to create stress.”
The middles can’t create stress without a good set, and Nicklin Hames’ improvement and increased aggressiveness has been a big part of the big numbers.
“It’s easy to set a perfect pass, set the middle,” Cook said. “But the good setters can set the middle from a lot of different areas and they have to be able to put up a hittable ball because there’s less room for error. They have to be able to put up a hittable ball that the hitters can hit and move and hit around the block. That’s where she’s improved. She’s much more consistent in putting up balls that they can do something with.”
Caffey has started eight of Nebraska’s 10 matches. Callie Schwarzenbach has started the other two and though she’s seen limited laying time, her blocking numbers have continued to be strange at 1.40 per set. Caffey has made major strides in that area since she arrived in Lincoln, however, and isn’t far behind at 1.31 blocks per set.
“She’s really, really improved,” Cook said. “She understands our system and how we’re trying to play and how our blocking defense is. We’ve seen a lot of improvement in practice and it’s transferring into matches now, so it’s pretty cool to see. She trains hard, she works really hard, she watches video, so she’s doing everything you have to to become a great blocker.
“That’s a tough skill; you guys have heard me talk about that before. Sometimes we think the biggest, tallest players are the best blockers. She’s smaller, so she technically has to be really good and I think she really has embraced that and focused on technically, fundamentally doing a good job.”
Sun took home player of the week honors after a strong weekend, but Nebraska’s overall outside hitter production hasn’t been where Cook wants to see it. Sun is hitting .234, Madi Kubik is at .225, Riley Zuhn is at .128 and Jazz Sweet, in limited playing time, is at .120.
“We’re working on it,” Cook said. “We’re trying to solve the problem on how to have everybody firing on all cylinders. That’s always the challenge and it’s why we practice and watch video and try and get better.”
Nebraska’s next chance to make strides will come this weekend against unbeaten Ohio State, who has risen to No. 11 in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll. Among the Buckeyes’ 12 wins are two over Penn State, a five-gamer and a sweep.
“12-0 in the Big Ten is going to get a lot of people’s attention,” Cook said. “They have a new coach that’s done a good job with them. They return all of their players and added a great freshman in [Emily] Londot. They’re loaded. They’ve got firepower, they’ve got a setter who’s very active, so we’ve got to deal with that. You have to remember they beat Wisconsin at the end of last year, so this is not a fluke team or all of a sudden a Cinderella team. It’s a team that’s older, they’ve got good players and now they’ve got a coach who’s helping them play really well.”
Led by Jen Flynn Oldenburg, Ohio State is second in the Big Ten in hitting this season at .267 (narrowly ahead of Nebraska at .261) and is third behind the Husker sin opponent hitting percentage at .177. Londot is leading the attack at 3.80 kills per set on .251 hitting while sophomore setter Mac Podraza runs the show, averaging 10.63 assists per set.
First serve at the Devaney Center on Friday is set for 6 p.m. CT on NET. Saturday’s match is scheduled for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.