The schedule ramped up this week for the young Huskers as Nebraska took on a pair of ranked teams. The Huskers swept No. 19 Creighton in impressive fashion on Wednesday but let a 2-0 lead slip away against No. 20 Utah at home and suffered their first setback of the season.
Peaks and Valleys
Heading into Wednesday’s game against Creighton at CHI Health Center Omaha, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Creighton had reeled off an impressive start to season including a sweep against reining champion Kentucky on its own floor. The Bluejays also had to deal with some adversity, surviving a five-game thriller with USC.
Meanwhile, Nebraska went five games with Omaha and four games with both Kansas State and Georgia, all unranked teams. Coach John Cook was doing plenty of experimenting, but part of that had to do with nobody really grabbing onto some of those spots and running with them. It just seemed like the Bluejays had a better understanding of who they were and how they needed to play.
Then Nebraska went out and rolled the Bluejays with relative ease. The Huskers were locked in and formed a seemingly impenetrable defense with block touches and digs on nearly every Creighton attack. The Huskers held the Bluejays to .053 hitting and recorded 69 digs in three sets.
It looked like the Huskers were going to carry that momentum into the weekend as they took the first set against Utah relatively easy on Saturday, 25-18. In the second set, they showed some resiliency to come from behind and win it late, 26-24 for a 2-0 lead. The Huskers had match point twice in game three, but couldn’t finish the Utes off. Utah rallied to win the match in five.
The attention to detail and precision on defense with which the Huskers dominated that Creighton match were absent. After hitting .027 in the first two sets, the Utes hit .327, .276 and .346 in the last three. Nebraska had fewer digs (63) in five sets than they had in three against Creighton. Nebraska gave up 10 service aces (six of them by sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana), and the Huskers’ passing struggles led to trouble terminating on offense.
“Akana broke down tonight serve passing,” Cook said. “Sometimes, that’s what happens. I don’t think their serving was great, it wasn’t any tougher than what we’ve seen. We just weren’t handling it very well. Again, that’s trusting their training and staying with it. But we gave up a lot of easy points passing.”
Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez has arguably been Nebraska’s most consistent player this season, and for the first time all year she didn’t lead the team in digs. Nicklin Hames did, and while Hames is a terrific defensive setter, if she’s making first contact it means the Huskers aren’t in system.
“I thought Roddy could have dug more balls tonight, she was moving around a little bit and got beat,” Cook said.
Through three weeks, we’ve seen what the Huskers are capable of defensively, but we’ve also learned they aren’t quite there yet consistently.
Someone has to Terminate
Through this weekend’s matches, Nebraska is hitting just .227. That would rank the Huskers 10th in the Big Ten this season. Even during that Creighton match, Nebraska’s best performance of the season by far, the Huskers only hit .177.
“I feel better, but we hit .177,” Cook said after the Creighton match. “We didn’t have a lot of errors, which is good, but we‘ve got to find ways to kill some more balls. Seventy digs in a three game match, that’s over 20 a game. So we’ve got to convert more of our digs. That’s the next thing we’ve got to really focus on is convert more of our digs. We should have more kills than that digging that many balls.”
The Huskers did not make progress against Utah, barely cracking .200. The Huskers had plenty of chances throughout the last three sets to take control, but their best hitters didn’t make enough of their opportunities. Lexi Sun had several clean rips late that Utah dug, and she finished with eight kills and eight errors. Freshman Ally Batenhorst replaced junior Madi Kubik because the veteran was struggling to terminate with six kills and five errors.
“I thought we were tentative at times tonight and we weren’t really getting good swings in long rallies like we need to,” Cook said after the Utah match. “So that’s something we’ve got to work on … Just bettering the ball. They were tipping and rolling a lot and we were scrambling and reaching, our middles were reaching and deflecting them and we just didn’t play great team volleyball and trust each other. Part of it was those are some good shots that they were making, but those were also shots that we’ve got to put pressure back on them and we gave him a lot of easy balls back. We hit a lot of balls at the libero.”
All five of Nebraska’s pin hitters are hitting below .210. Freshmen struggling with inconsistency shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, and all three have shown flashes of their significant talent. But the veterans, Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik, are hitting .188 and .203 respectively, and that’s just not going to get it done.
Rotating Right Sides
Cook has done plenty of experimentation, but for the most part the starts have been more or less the same. Hames, Kayla Caffey, Callie Schwarzenbach, Sun, Kubik and Rodriguez have each started at least five matches.
The one spot that seems to be truly up for grabs each and every day is opposite hitter. Lindsay Krause got the start in Nebraska’s first four matches. She showed some flashes of what she’s capable of with 12 kills against Kansas State and a 12-kill, 10-block double-double against Omaha, but she also hit .133. With Krause struggling in the firsts set against Georgia, Cook went to Whitney Lauenstein who sparked the Huskers in a big way with 8 kills on .429 hitting.
Lauenstein got the start against Arizona State and had another big match with 11 kills on .529 hitting. However, Lauenstein struggled mightily against Creighton with two kills and three errors on 21 attempts.
Against Utah, Cook went back to Krause and she had her best offensive match of her young career with a team-high 15 kills on .317 hitting plus five blocks. She had some huge swings in the fifth game and went back and forth with Utah star Dani Drews throughout the match.
“Lindsay’s had a couple of good days of practice and Whitney didn’t,” Cook said. “They’ve got to prove it practice, and so we decided to go with her and she had a pretty good night. She got used a little bit blocking but she did some good things tonight.”
Krause is averaging 1.96 kills per set on .190 hitting. Lauenstein is at 1.25 kills on .209 hitting. Neither one has managed to grab onto that job and run away with it, and all indications are it will continue to be a week-by-week competition.
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.