No. 4 Nebraska improved to 4-0 this season with a pair of wins over Maryland at the Devaney Center this weekend. The Huskers beat the Terrapins 4-1 on Friday then followed it up with a sweep on Saturday.
A Different Feel at the Devaney
The Huskers had to wait an extra week to make their home debut because of COVID-19 issues for Northwestern. They finally got their first chance to play on their home court for the first time since Dec. 7, 2019, though the scene was quite a bit different than what they remembered.
Instead of a packed Devaney Center, the Huskers played in front of a mostly empty gym with somewhere in the area of 100 friends and family spread out throughout the stands.
“We don’t know how to play without 8,000 fans,” Coach John Cook said after the Huskers 3-1 win on Friday. “This was our first home match, remember that. When we were at Indiana, they were pumping in crowd noise and all that. This was our first home match that we played without 8,000 fans, so we probably underestimated the impact that that would have on our energy and we were just flat. They were excited to play, but they were just flat because I think they’re used to feeding off that energy.
“We’re going to have to learn how to play without those fans. This is one of the negatives I guess of selling out since 2001 with COVID. I guess if you play somewhere there’s no fans, you’re used to it. That’s always one of my big worries when we go to some places that don’t have fans is our energy goes down. I think we were a little flat tonight, but we made an adjustment and pulled ourselves out a little bit.”
It definitely felt much more like I was walking into the Devaney Center for a practice on Friday rather than a match. I’ve covered basketball games already this season, so it didn’t necessarily catch me off guard, but it still felt strange.
The Huskers are still experimenting with the game-day atmosphere for hame matches. On Friday, they didn’t incorporate any noise at all outside of when they’d play music for a normal match, opting to let the small collection of fans provide some natural crowd noise.
“I just think that we need to focus on the communication aspect of the game because there were a few times where between plays it was silent in the gym,” Lauren Stivrins said. “You could hear a penny drop. I think that was so different for us being in game mode and having all this energy and adrenaline and then to just not hear anything. It’s such a weird dynamic so I think we need to get better about not focusing on anything else and just focusing on us and bringing our own energy and stuff like that.”
Among the friends and family were a few Nebraska football players. During the first set, as a Terrapin was going through her serving motion, one of them yelled “Hey batter batter batter swing!” She served directly into the net. From there, the heckling grew louder and more varied as more people joined in and they switched up the calls.
“I love it,” Stivrins said. “Someone’s gotta do it, right? It was actually so fun and those are most of our friends anyway and, not mine, but girls’ boyfriends and stuff. It was just a lot of fun to have a little bit of flava in the audience if you will. That was great. It was a lot of fun, even though there were not many people there, they still made the most of it and so did we.”
They changed things up on Saturday, playing music between points in an effort to eliminate the awkward silence. Cook said he didn’t notice the difference because he was locked in on what he was doing. Cook said it will be up to the players to decide what route they take moving forward, but at this point they don’t seem to have a great feel for it either.
“I don’t know about the music,” Madi Kubik said. “I don’t know if we should do fan noise. Its so different. Devaney’s such an awesome place to play in and going from almost 9,000 fans to 100, maybe not even, I don’t even know how many people were there, but so, so different than what Devaney normally feels like I just think we had to get used to bringing our own energy and bringing that from within because normally the crowd’s going crazy and we just kind of like soak in those moments. I think it’s an adjustment for sure.”
Cook was much happier with the energy the team brought on Saturday compared to Friday, and the results reflected that. We’ll see how the game-day atmosphere continues to evolve at the Devaney Center this season, but the Huskers are focused on making the best of it.
Hildebrand’s Return Already Paying Dividends
Nebraska’s offense in week one against Indiana was a little out of sorts. The Huskers started slow in the first match and got better with each set. In the second match, they got off to a solid start but weren’t able to sustain that level of efficiency. A lot of that has to do with some changes to their offense and particularly with the way Nicklin Hames is setting.
Kelly Hunter spoke very highly to me of some of the tweaks Hildebrand made to her game the last time he was in Lincoln, and the new assistant appears to be doing the same with Hames in his return.
“Nicklin has just completely changed her game and she is chucking balls in from wherever to whoever,” Stivrins said. “It started off kind of slow and a little bit rough, the previous practices and whatnot, but to see her get more comfortable doing that and for us to have that confidence and bond to be able to do that in games is something that’s so special. We were tryin to do that against Indiana and it wasn’t really working. There were a lot of misconnects but to see it come full-circle and for us to be able to execute in games is something really special and I think she’s going to be an amazing setter this year. I mean, she already is, but she’s taken it to a whole ‘nother level.”
On Friday, Lauren Stivrins posted the fifth-highest hitting percentage in program history at .850, recording 18 kills on 20 attempts. It was one shy of her career-high in kills.
“I think it’s something that we’ve always talked about and wanted to do,” Stivrins said. “Tyler has brought so many different aspects to the game and we’ve changed so many things and it’s nice to mix things up because ever since I’ve been here we’ve been running the same offense and doing the same thing. It’s been really nice to switch things up and get the ball from pretty much wherever and do pretty much whatever I want. That’s kind of nice.”
On Saturday, Nebraska’s offense was much more balanced as Hames got her pin hitters going much more than the night before.
All Hands on Deck
In the fourth set of Friday’s win, true freshman walk-on setter Anni Evans made her debut as a serving substitute. Cook subbed Jazz Sweet in for Nicklin Hames in the front row and sent Evans back to serve, and she delivered an ace on her first career point. Stivrins’ face lit up when I asked her about Evans.
“The team loves her,” Cook said after the match. “She is an ultimate team player. We’ve got to look for more opportunities to let her get in there. When she first got here, I would kid her that she had a Waverly JV high school serve, and she’s worked really hard on it. She gives us fits in practice, so I was not surprised. Maryland, I don’t think passed one of her serves. We see that all the time. I’m just happy she had the confidence to come in and the belief and I think that’s how much that team really, really cares about her and supports her. She did a really good job.”
Cook gave Evans another couple of chances to play in the third set on Saturday. She didn’t get an ace this time, but she did record her first career assist as she fed Kayla Caffey for the match-point kill. Evans won’t have a huge role on this team so long as Hames is available, but it is impressive that she’s earned Cook’s trust so quickly and has found a way to contribute.
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.