Nebraska dropped both of its matches this week to fall to 6-3 at the end of the nonconference schedule. The Huskers fell in four at No. 16 Stanford on Tuesday then returned home and lost to No. 5 Louisville 3-0.
John Cook maintained right up until the season-opener that he didn’t know what lineup he should start. The Huskers have now navigated through the entire nonconference schedule, and it still doesn’t look like Cook has that answer.
He used the phrase “I don’t know” four different times during his post-match interview after the loss to No. 5 Louisville on Saturday, Nebraska’s third straight defeat.
Cook constructed a pretty impressive nonconference slate, with two multi-match tournaments at home to open the season against unranked opponents, giving Cook a chance to experiment with lines and get his talented freshmen playing time. After that, it ramped up with four straight ranked opponents including two matches away from home leading into the Big Ten.
Cook was hoping to have his best lineup locked in by this point, but the hasn’t happened. The returning starters at outside hitter have failed to play at the same level they did a season ago. Cook decided to give the freshmen a chance to play together for a whole match at Stanford, but they struggled. He went back to starting the veterans against Louisville, but mixed and matched as nobody was able to sustain good play.
Nebraska hit a season-low .046. They started off poorly and got worse throughout the night.
“That’s a complete failure on our part,” Cook said. “Passing, setting, attacking, everybody gets credit for that.”
Outside of Lauren Stivrins, who continues to work her way back from back surgery, freshman middle blocker Rylee Gray is the only player on the team who hasn’t seen the court yet. Cook has given everybody a chance to prove themselves, and the results have continued to be mixed. Middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach and libero Lexi Rodriguez are the only Huskers who have played in every set.
The three-match losing streak is the longest for the Huskers since losing three straight in October of 2018, to Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“I think what’s disappointing the most is that we’re not playing to the capability that we could have,” junior defensive specialist and co-captain Kenzie Knuckles said after the Louisville loss. “I’ll give it to them, they are a great team and I think they’ve done a lot of great things and they played really awesome tonight. I think that the past three games that we’ve played we haven’t really played to the capability that I know this team can play to, so I think that’s what’s disappointing, and not playing Nebraska volleyball.”
Knuckles said she thinks the team has a lot of growing to do as an entire unit.
“I think we just need to have a lot of hard conversations about what we need to do in order to be a better team as a whole,” Knuckles said. “With that being volleyball on the court or volleyball off the court, we just need to start working some things out and trying to grow as a team.”
Cook said the Huskers weren’t trying to win a national championship during the nonconference. The losses are disappointing, but all of their goals remain in front of them. But moving forward, every loss counts as Big Ten play starts on Wednesday.
Saturday’s match may have been disappointing for the current Huskers, but it was a special night for Dani Busboom Kelly, the former Nebraska player and assistant coach who is now running the show at Louisville.
Busboom Kelly received a warm welcome from the Devaney Center during lineup introductions before the match, and then she proceeded to lead her current team over her former one in a sweep.
“Just a lot of appreciation that Nebraska is so in tune to what their alumni are doing,” Busboom Kelly said. “I still get tweets all the time from fans and a bunch of them said hello so it’s just really cool that they keep up with their alumni and they’re proud and it’s not just like John being proud of somebody who worked for him, it’s the whole state and and all the fans. So it’s a great feeling.”
After the match, Cook told her that she’s doing a great job and that she has. Great team on her hands.
“It’s a very experienced team and they serve and pass and play defense, so every time you do that you’re going to have a chance to do well, and they were very aggressive taking swings tonight,” Cook said. “Even when they got blocked they were still swinging; we get blocked, we hit out; we get blocked, we tip. So, like I said it’s a mindset.”
Louisville was 12-18 the year before Busboom Kelly took over. Since then, the Cardinals have won 76% of their games and have qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year. They just beat in-state rival Kentucky, the reigning national champion, and Nebraska, one of the premier programs in college volleyball, in the same week.
“I didn’t go to Louisville thinking ‘Man, I want to beat Nebraska someday,’ but it is a milestone,” Busboom Kelly said. “When you look at recruits and where they’re ranked, we have to work really hard to train great and be creative. We don’t get the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, but when we can go head-to-head and play that way and, player for player, compete, that’s what I was working towards is not necessarily beating Nebraska but finding a group that can compete with these teams that are consistently getting top recruits.”
The Cardinals are 10-0 this season and ranked fifth in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll. Busboom Kelly has certainly continued the John Cook coaching tree that has paid dividends for so many programs around the country.
Nebraska will get a look at other former player and assistant coaching her own program next year when Kayla Banwarth and Ole Miss visit Lincoln.
The Huskers wrap up the nonconference schedule at 6-3.
They’re hitting .206 as a team, last among Big Ten teams by a narrow margin with Iowa. They’re last in the Big Ten in kills per set as well at 12.32. Only Iowa has gotten blocked more frequently than the Huskers (2.40 opponent backs per set).
Lexi Sun is leading the Huskers with 2.48 kills per set on .174 hitting. Last year, she was at 3.64 kills per set on .242 hitting. Madi Kubik is second among pins with 2.19 kills per set on .197 hitting, down from 2.85 kills per set on .220 hitting last season. Nicklin Hames is averaging 9.26 assists per set compared to 10.91 a season ago. The blame for Nebraska’s low numbers deserves to be spread around as passers need to be better, sets need to be on time and on target and pins need to terminate. None of that is happening consistently right now. Nebraska has to be better in order to get things turned around, and it has to start with the veterans.
The talented trio of outside hitters has elevated the competition in practice, but it hasn’t translated to success in the matches just yet. Lindsay Krause is averaging 1.94 kills per set on .163 hitting. Ally Batenhorst is at 1.50 kills per set on .121 hitting. Whitney Lauenstein is chipping in 1.44 kills per set on .178 hitting.
One bright spot has been the play of the middle blockers sans Stivrins. Both starters have improved their production from a season ago. Kayla Caffey is second on the team in kills at 2.33 per set and first in hitting percentage at .408 (up from 2.04 kills per set on .380 hitting). Schwarzenbach has improved as well at 1.21 kills per set on .290 hitting after seeing her role reduced a season ago thanks to Caffey’s arrival (0.90 kills per set on .262 hitting).
Defensively, teams are hitting .145 against Nebraska, fifth among Big Ten teams. Nebraska is seventh in both blocks (2.66 per set) and digs (14.71 per set). The Huskers peaked defensively against Creighton on Sept. 8, holding a very talented Bluejays team to .053 hitting, but have struggled to replicate that kind of performance since. Louisville hit .255 on Saturday, the highest percentage Nebraska has allowed this season.
Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez is leading the Huskers with 4.0 digs per set. Of the five Huskers who have seen at least 50 serves come their way, Rodriguez is the only one with a reception percentage over .950 at .978. She has just two reception errors on 93 attempts. Madi Kubik has been the most-targeted Husker in serve receive with 151 attempts, and her percentage is down to .940 from .971 a season ago. She’s already one error shy of her 2020-21 season total with nine.
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.