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Nebraska Volleyball Notebook: Penn State Series in Doubt, Stivrins Chasing History

March 28, 2021

Nebraska took its final road trip of the season this week, winning in four sets at Michigan on Thursday then sweeping the Wolverines on Thursday. The Huskers are 14-2 heading into the final week of the regular season.

Over Already?

Nebraska regular season was set to end with a bang, a showdown against rival Penn State at the Devaney Center. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions announced on Thursday that their series against Wisconsin this week had been canceled “out of an abundance of caution” (a phrase many sports fans have come to dread over the last year).

Penn State hasn’t provided any updates since then, which casts the future of the Nebraska-Penn State series into serious doubt. John Baylor broached the topic with Cook during his post-game radio interview after Friday’s win over Michigan.

“I think it’s going to depend on how their testing goes through the weekend and into early next week,” Cook said. “If they get more positives it will be canceled; if not, maybe they can make it happen. It’s not a done deal yet either way, so we just have to be patient and see what next week brings. I don’t know all the details, I just know the possibility is still open so we’re going to hold out. It’d be fun to play Penn State, they’re always a fun match to play and we get to play in front of fans, so that would be really special for our team.”

If Penn State isn’t able to play next week, it might signal the end of Nebraska’s regular season after just 16 matches. Penn State and Wisconsin were the only Big Ten teams that weren’t able to play last week; the other six series all happened. That means if Penn State has to pause team activities, barring positive tests in another program early in the week, there won’t be any teams with an open weekend to schedule make-up matches with Nebraska.

On a somewhat related note, Penn State not being able to play against Wisconsin might have all but locked up the Big Ten title for the Badgers. Wisconsin is currently 11-0, and while the 9-4 Nittany Lions probably wouldn’t have had enough firepower to take down the No. 1 team in the country, the cancellation of that series means Nebraska needs Michigan (4-7) to beat Wisconsin twice next week to knock the Badgers from the top spot.

Welcome Back… Or Not?

Penn State versus Nebraska is always one of the highlights of the season, producing classic showdowns more often than not. However, this year’s match-up means even more thanks to the Big Ten’s decision to allow fans to attend spring sports in accordance with local health restrictions.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers take on the Maryland Terrapins with a very small crowd in attendance during an NCAA volleyball game Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by John S. Peterson.

With the Huskers on the road this week, that meant Thursday against Penn State would have been the first volleyball match open to fans beyond the small number of friends and family that have attended matches this season.

“That’s huge news,” junior setter Nicklin Hames said earlier this week. “It’s really exciting and I know everyone is super pumped about it. Honesty, Devaney doesn’t even feel like Devaney any more without the fans there, so we’re so excited.”

Typically, 8,000 fans pack the Devaney Center, with standing room only tickets selling at a high rate for big match-ups like Penn State. However, Nebraska’s plan was to cap attendance at 2,400 and keep the lower level blocked off to maintain social distancing measure and protect the student-athletes.

“They’re back,” Hames said. “We have our fans back. We know it’s not going to be a full Devaney and we’re exited for the time it will be everyone back in Devaney, but just to even get some fans back, it’s going to be amazing. It’s pretty quiet in there and we really feed off the energy of Devaeny, and I know it puts a lot of pressure on other teams too. So to have them there, especially because we’re playing Penn State — that’s so exciting and I know the Penn State game is always super exciting and the fans always get really into it, so to have at least some of them there, its going to be great.”

If Nebraska isn’t able to play its scheduled home matches this week, they won’t get the chance to welcome fans back to the Devaney Center. Something tells me there will be plenty of fans sporting the scarlet and cream in Omaha when the NCAA Tournament begins on April 14.

Chasing History

Lauren Stivrins is leading the Big Ten in hitting percentage by nearly 30 points, and she has nearly 40 more kills than anybody else on the leaderboard. She’s been an absolute force at the net this season — so much so that she’s within striking distance of a program record.

In 2007, Tracy Stalls hit a ridiculous .473, breaking the previous record (minimum 200 attempts) of .402 set by Amber Holmquist in 2002. She averaged 2.83 kills per set with 514 total attacks in 103 sets. She was also the third option on that team behind Sarah Pavan and Jordan Larson.

Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins (26) scores a kill against Iowa outside hitter Edina Schmidt (20) and middle blocker Hannah Clayton (18) on Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Through 13 matches this season, Stivrins was hitting an insane .478. She went into a mini-slump after that, hitting .231 against Iowa and .368 against Michigan, which dropped her average below Stalls’ record. However, Stivrins closed out the weekend with a monster performance against the Wolverines on Friday, 10 kills on .714 hitting. That pushed her back about .470on the season.

Stivrins is only at 314 attempts this season because of the reduced schedule, but she’s averaging 3.23 kills per set, and while Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik are talented players, they’re not Pavan and Larson, two all-time collegiate volleyball greats.

Stivrins is already second on Nebraska’s single-season hitting percentage leader board as she hit .421 as a sophomore. Even if she does fall short of passing Stalls again, that will still give her two of the three most efficient attacking seasons in program history, and considering the supporting cast and her own volume, Stivrins is arguably putting together one of the most impressive seasons in Nebraska history.

And while we’re talking about the middle blockers, Cook continues to alternate between Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach for the second middle blocker spot. Cook gave Schwarzenbach the starting nod in the second match against Iowa last week and she had her best performance of the season with four kills on five swings and five blocks.

Cook went back to Caffey against Michigan and she started both matches, totaling 17 kills on .577 hitting and 10 blocks in seven sets. That including 10 kill on .769 hitting in Friday’s match.

“There are a lot of things we look at,” Cook said before the Michigan matches. “We stat every practice, so we know what their hitting numbers and what their blocking numbers are. That’s kind of how we go. It’s very, very close. All those guys are doing a really, really good job.”

Caffey is averaging 1.96 kills per set on .364 hitting on 1.04 blocks per set. Schwarzenbach has only played in half of Nebraska’s matches, and she’s not as big of an offensive threat as Caffey (0.82 kills per set on .258 hitting), but she’s still strong defensively with a team-high 1.12 blocks per set and you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with third option who has as much high-level experience as Schwarzenbach.

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