Nebraska faced its first ranked opponent of the season over the weekend as No. 5 Minnesota visited Lincoln for a pair of matches. The No. 5 Huskers suffered their first setback of the season with a four-set loss to the Gophers on Friday, but they bounced back on Sunday to sweep Minnesota.
This weekend was a valuable learning experience for the Huskers. John Cook always talks about how much of a grind the Big Ten is and how there are no easy nights, but as strong as the conference is, there are definitely tiers just like every other league.
With that being the case, Nebraska’s first three opponents are a combined 5-25 this season. Friday night against No. 5 Minnesota was the first time the Huskers truly got tested this season, and boy did they look like they hadn’t done much studying.
Nebraska didn’t get a nonconference this season. The Huskers didn’t get a chance to test themselves early on against Creighton or Stanford or another team like that. Instead they got Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers. Minnesota, on the other hand, had already played in three five-game matches and faced two top-15 opponents in Purdue and Penn State.
On Friday night, Nebraska just wasn’t ready to go.
“It just seemed like everything was just a little bit off, and we would have good plays here and there but we would have no type of consistency and no type of… I don’t know, it just seemed like individuals out there and not like a team unit,” Lauren Stivrins said.
The Huskers’ passing was a mess, players were out of position on defense and hitters were sending the ball everywhere but where they were aiming. Nebraska dug itself a hole at the start of every set. That being said, they did battle back to win the second set and had a chance to win the third.
“We were competing really hard in the middle of those sets, and it was pretty cool to see,” Nicklin Hames said. “It was really fun to be out there, just the competitiveness of every single person on our team and we showed really great moments of that and I think when we get to the point where we’re doing that for entire matches, entire sets, we’re going to be very, very good. I think right now is just us finding that competitiveness, that fire throughout the entire game.”
The Huskers found that consistent fire on Sunday, sweeping the same team that humbled them 40 hours prior.
Searching for Consistency
Heading into the weekend’s matches, Minnesota opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy had won Big Ten Player of the Week twice in a row after racking up 90 kills on .256 hitting in four matches against Purdue and Penn State. The Huskers knew they were going to have to slow her down in order to win, and they couldn’t do it.
Samedy totaled 27 kills on .379 hitting on Friday.
“She did everything we thought she was going to do,” Cook said. “She’s playing at the highest level I’ve seen her; I told you guys this week I think she’s playing better than anyone in the country. If you take out the first game, we did a pretty good job on her but end game, she’s going to get the ball and she made plays and we didn’t. Our players didn’t make plays at the end of games when we needed to and Samedy did. That’s the difference in the match.”
Samedy was the best player on the floor. Across the net, Nebraska’s Lexi Sun had 11 kills and 11 digs, but she also had 10 attack errors, a few of which came in end-game scenarios.
Lauren Stivrins has been phenomenal this season. She’s leading the Big Ten in hitting at .478 while averaging 3.41 kills per set. But the nature of her position puts a bit of a cap on her usage. To keep the middle blockers involved, a team has to pass the ball really well and stay in system consistently. Otherwise the ball is going to the pin-hitters almost every time, and that’s why Nebraska needs Sun to be better.
In Nebraska’s first seven matches, Sun averaged 3.65 kills per set on .199 hitting. She had 40 attack errors in 24 sets and finished with 10 attack errors in a match twice.
She was spectacular against the Golden Gophers on Sunday, however, this time matching Samedy’s production on much better efficiency. Sun led the Huskers with 12 kills on .321 hitting, recording just three errors, and she added a team-high 13 digs and chipped in four block assists.
“I just think she came out and whatever interference she had on Friday she was free and clear today,” Cook said. “That’s kind of what we expect from her every night when you’re a senior. She got challenged Friday night and your stud players have got to battle against these good teams. She did a great job of that today. It sets the tone for our whole team when she’s like that.”
Sun’s struggles on Friday weren’t solely her fault. Bad passing leads to off-target setting and difficult swings for the hitters, and there was some of that in that first match. Nebraska’s passing was much better on Sunday, and it allowed Sun to shine.
“I think that we just kind of had an attack mindset today,” Sun said. “We were playing hesitant on Friday night and I think we were having more fun with it this morning. I think that showed in my play specifically.”
Sun isn’t Mikaela Foecke (not many are), but she’s clearly very talented in her own right and Nebraska is going to need quality play from her on a consistent basis in order to make a deep tournament run.
Xs and Os
The back-to-back nature of this unique 2020–21 Big Ten schedule presents an opportunity for coaches to really shine with their adjustments from one night to the next. A lot of Nebraska’s improvement from the first match against Minnesota to the second was simply a case of the Huskers playing much better, but there was also one key strategic change.
For the first time this season that I can recall, Cook changed the Huskers’ opening rotation.
“There were a couple reasons behind that,” Cook said. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t in a serving rotation when CC McGraw was serving and we wanted to try to make sure we could always have either Riley [Zuhn] or Lexi on Samedy. We have five of the rotations covered, pretty much, between those two being able to go over there and block her. We did a nice job on her today and I thought that was the key to the match. She had 27 kills last time. She’s a heck of a player.”
Samedy finished with 12 kills on .135 hitting in the second match as the Huskers did a much better job of making things difficult for her.
Typically, libero Kenzie Knuckles takes Stivrins’ place in the first rotation because she starts in the back row, but Cook’s adjustment meant the senior got a chance to actually play on the first point.
“I thought that was super fun,” Stivrins said. “Pretty much since I’ve been here we haven’t really started when I’m in, so that was really cool. But just to see how the team was able to play from the very first point today was really, really cool. I don’t think that’s anything that I did and I don’t think that’s anything of us starting in that rotation, I just think that was everyone kind of coming in and getting after it.”