No. 10 Nebraska’s outlook changed dramatically last week when All-America middle blocker Lauren Stivrins made her 2021 debut. After a very warm (and loud) welcome back from the Devaney Center crowd during starting lineups, Stivrins proceeded to put down 11 kills on .733 hitting in a Nebraska sweep over Michigan.
Stivrins called her debut a top-three moment during her career in Lincoln. The other two?
“I thought of my sister being announced and just like how cool that was was, my first time ever getting to see her play live in college, so that was really special and it’s in the place that I love most,” Stivrins said. “So it was really cool to see and then to hear everyone cheer for her just made my heart melt. So that one, and then I would say just winning the Big Ten in ’17. I think that was a really exciting time for us and our team worked super hard to get to that point.”
Last weekend was the first time Nebraska’s freshmen, including outside hitter Ally Batenhorst, got to play alongside Stivrins in live game action.
“It’s so much fun,” Batenhorst said. “She’s just an incredible player and leader and she just brings a lot of energy to the court. She’s one of our biggest leaders and captains, obviously, so I think having her back has just really helped us come together as a team and really push forward and bring another level … It was so cool. It was insane because obviously last year I wasn’t eligible, so it was really cool to actually be on the court next to her and just be able to play with such an inspiring player.”
Keonilei Akana, who did get a chance to play alongside Stivrins last season as a freshman, said her return has provided a big confidence boost for the rest of the Huskers.
“Lauren, she’s a huge asset to the team,” Akana said. “We definitely love her. She’s a great captain and she just brings so much energy. I would say her confidence has really helped our team especially and even with her off the court, she really helped us when she was off and so when she had the ability to come on the court, I think the energy was firing.”
With just two matches and a few weeks of practice under her belt, Stivrins said she’s still figuring some things out as she continues to work back to full strength from the back injury and surgery that cost her 20 pounds (including 11 pounds of muscle).
“I don’t quite jump as high as I used to so sometimes I get blocked or don’t finish a block move as frequently as I used to, but yeah, just figuring it out, day by day,” Stivrins said.
Stivrins’ return comes at a fortunate time as he Huskers’ schedule ramps up this week. Nebraska will head to No. 13 Penn State on Friday for the next installment in one of college volleyball’s best rivalries.
“I’m super pumped,” Batenhorst said. “I’m so excited. It’ll be fun because obviously it’s a big game. But we’re just going to play our game and just keep doing our game plan and working hard and just having a lot of energy. I think those games tend to get really hype and just a lot of people watching and it’s just super intense, so having that momentum and energy on the court will definitely help.”
For Nebraska’s freshmen and sophomores, Friday will be the first time the Huskers play in a truly hostile road environment.
“They love to just tell you exactly what you don’t want to hear and point out where you went wrong, so it’s going to be chaotic and it’s going to be intense and it’s going to be fun,” Stivrins said.
Stivrins said she’ll make sure to prepare the underclassmen for what they’ll see at Penn State, and Coach John Cook said Nebraska’s own environment at the Devaney Center should have them ready.
The Nittany Lions are tied with Nebraska atop the Big Ten standings with a 4-0 conference record. Penn State went 7-3 in nonconference play but all three losses came to ranked teams.
“They’re loaded,” Cook said. “They’ve got two all-conference transfers at left side hitter. They’ve got three all-conference players that started for them: Jonni Parker, their setter and Hord. And they’ve got another transfer middle who’s replaced their other middle that was really good. So they’re loaded and they’re good. It will be a great great test. Fired up to play them.”
Parker, a senior opposite hitter, is leading the Penn State attack with 3.79 kills per set on .311 hitting and 0.98 blocks per set. Senior setter Gabby Blossom (10.42 assists per set, 2.48 digs per set and a team-high 16 service aces) is orchestrating a Penn State offense hitting .286, third-best in the league. Senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord is second in the Big ten with 1.74 blocks per set while chipping in 2.15 kills per set on .359 hitting.
Penn State has also added outside hitters Erika Pritchard (Maryland) and Adanna Rollins (Minnesota) via the transfer portal, and they’re nearly averaging 5.0 kills per set between them. The other starting middle is sophomore Allie Holland who is averaging 1.88 kills per set on .407 hitting and 1.29 blocks per set.
As a team, the Nittany Lions are leading the Big Ten in blocking with 3.32 per set.
“We practice with some pretty big blocks here too and I think just going through that and repping that out and just going for high hands and being creative, I think just helps us,” Batenhorst said. “We’re used to that so I think playing against them, we’re ready for it.”
After facing the Nittany Lions on Friday, the Huskers will head to New Jersey to take on Rutgers on Sunday at noon to close out the weekend.
“I like our mindset the last couple of weeks, I like how we’re training and I like how we’re competing,” Cook said. “I think they’re gaining confidence and this will be a great test. Penn State’s always fun to play, but we also have another match on Sunday that we have to take care of. Every weekend the Big Ten is going to be super challenging and it’s going to come down to a couple plays here and there, like a lot of the Big Ten sports.”
First serve on Friday is set for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.
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.