Over the last week or so, Coach John Cook issued a challenge to the Nebraska faithful: pack the Devaney Center for the Red-White Scrimmage and give the newcomers on the team a look at what the atmosphere is like on match day.
Nearly 8,000 people answered that call on Saturday as the Red team, made up of returning starters and others pushing for starting spots, won the match 2-1 (25-19, 25-17, 20-25).
“It’s really hard to describe, to have a Red-White game and have that many people and the energy was really good, even though it’s hard to cheer for people or to know how to cheer,” Cook said. “I’m sure there were a lot of first-time fans that got to see that and I thought there were spurts of really good volleyball."
Cook called the match after three sets despite the White team winning the third.
“I felt like they were starting to get tired because they had so much adrenaline at the beginning and you just burn that off,” Cook said. “So this was great preparation for the big matches coming up. I’m just glad we got this out of the way instead of waiting a week to do it. I’m really grateful for our fans showing up; I hear the line is like around the building for autographs. A lot of people want to get in touch with this team and get autographs on posters and so it’s just a win-win day.”
Red roster: freshman Nicklin Hames at setter, freshman Callie Scwarzenbach and sophomore Lauren Stivrins at middle blocker, sophomore Jazz Sweet at opposite hitter, senior Mikaela Foecke at outside hitter, freshman Megan Miller at defensive specialist and senior Kenzie Maloney at libero with sophomore outside hitter Sami Slaughter off the bench.
White roster: junior Mari Kurkova at setter, sophomore Anezka Szabo and alumna Amber Rolfzen at middle blocker, manager Jake Roberts and alumna Kadie Rolfzen at hitter, freshman Chen Abramovich at defensive specialist, sophomore Hayley Densberger at libero and freshman hitter Capri Davis and senior setter Brooke Smith off the bench.
“I thought the turnout was great,” Foecke said. “Having 8,000 fans was awesome and I think it was a great opportunity for us to get used to playing in the Devaney again. It’s been almost six months since us returners have played there, let alone the freshmen; I’m sure none of them have played in front of that big of a crowd, ever. Just to be able to get back out there was a great feeling. I think that we had a lot of great moments out there, but we also had some things that we know we need to work on now. Luckily, we have a full week before we play Florida now.”
The White team struggled to find a rhythm offensively in the first set as the Red team jumped out to a 3-0 lead and cruised from there, holding the White to -.065 for the set. The Red, led by Hames, hit .250 in the set with six different players recording at least one kill.
White settled down and put up more of a fight early in the second set, but Hames served the Red to a 6-0 run midway through the set to make it 17-9. The Red team closed out the set to take a 2-0 lead heading into the intermission. The Red out-hit the White .276 to .098.
The White team turned the tables in the third set, however. They ripped off a 5-0 run to take control at 12-9 and the Red drew no closer than within two points the rest of the way. A 6-0 run served by Densberger gave the White team an eight-point cushion and Kadie Rolfzen delivered the final kill on a set-up by Densebrger to close out the match.
Sophomore outside hitter-turned-middle blocker Anezka Szabo, affectionately known as the Block Nesh Monster by her teammates, recorded five blocks in the third set alone as the White team held the Red to .079 hitting.
Hames arrived in Lincoln with considerable hype as she was PrepVolleyball.com’s top-rated setter recruit in the 2018 class and she did nothing to derail that hype train on Saturday. On her first serve — the first of the game — she hit an ace. She finished with three aces, 26 assists and 11 digs — all match-highs, and also converted all three of her attacks into kills.
“She made great decisions tonight, really good decisions,” Cook said. “She has great instincts; she reminds me so much of Lauren, my daughter. They’re a little bit undersized but they just know the game so well. We’ve got to work on her consistency, her tempo. But she had three aces tonight. For a freshman to come in — serving’s usually the one area where they’re a little bit shaky and so I thought she did a really nice job for her first match in Devaney. Nicklin, she lives for stuff like this. This is stuff that energizes her and she loves it.”
On the other side of the net, freshman outside hitter Capri Davis made an early impression for the White team, recording a match-high eight kills in the first two sets. With the rest of the White team’s attackers struggling to find a rhythm, Davis showed off a powerful arm and a quick swing. She struggled in the third set but still finished with nine kills to lead all active players.
“She showed how physical she is,” Cook said. “She still has to manage the game a little bit, but she can get thunder kills and she’s a great blocker, a really good blocker. She just has to learn how to manage the rallies and the out-of-system stuff. She made a couple what I call bonehead plays on bad sets or out of system. She’s new to the outside hitter position just like Mikaela was. Sam was a middle blocker who we moved. Capri was a middle blocker who we moved. It just takes a long time to get good at that.”
Overall, there were 40 errors between the team in two sets, something that didn’t exactly shock Cook based on what he’s seen in practice to this point. However, with only eight days of preparation under their belts a bit of sloppiness was to be expected. Cook praised the floor defense and passing and said he was encouraged by the teams' performance.
Following the match, Nebraska awarded the coveted “Lifter of the Year” award to two players: Foecke and Stivrins. Normally reserved for one player, the team vote resulted in a tie.
“The Lifter of the Year award is just a huge award, especially for us because it comes from within the team,” Foecke said. “It’s someone who we think works the hardest and has made the most improvement. It started last fall and all the way through the spring and the summer. I think to be named that is a really big honor and it shows that you have the respect of your team and that they think you deserved it and earned the right to be named that. I think Lauren has done a great job this season, too. We test every year at the end of the summer and we both made big improvements, Lauren especially. Her vertical was higher than it’s ever been since she’s been here and so I think that was something she really wanted to work on. To see that happen was great.”
Cook said Foecke improved her performance index testing by more than 400 points (after already posting a good score as a junior) while Stivrins joined the 2,000 point club with her testing scores.
NET also debuted its documentary on the 2017 volleyball team, “Nebraska Volleyball: Culture of a Champion,” on the video board after the match. Many of the 7,965 fans from the match stuck around to watch the documentary while the team took it in from the benches.
“It always just bring chills just to see what we can represent,” Davis said about the look back at the 2017 season the video provided. “That kind of goes back to our theme this year which is ‘This We Will Defend.’ It’s just understanding that we have these people ahead of us and this is the culture that has been set for us, so it’s just really cool to be able to see that, ‘Hey, I get to represent Nebraska too,’ and I just want to represent the teammates, not even just the national championship — that in itself is a whole different thing — but just understanding that I’m representing my teammates and the culture that they already have established here.”
The team wrapped up the day with an autograph session for the fans.
“This was historic today,” Cook said. “With selling that out at 8,000, that’s never happened before anywhere in the history of volleyball for an opening-season scrimmage. Then of course having the lifter of the year, the documentary, it’s just a pretty cool day for a our fans and our team and our program.”
Nebraska has just under a week left of preparation before the Huskers will host No. 7 Florida in the VERT Challenge to open the 2018 season.
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.