Nebraska opened Big Ten play 2-0 with wins at Northwestern and against Iowa. John Cook stuck with the same starting lineup for both matches and it paid dividends.
Let’s get to some takeaways.
The big story line heading into this week, outside of the Huskers looking to end their losing streak, was the lineup that John Cook said he had settled on and planed to stick with for “a while.”
We learned what that lineup was in the win at Northwestern. It featured Madi Kubik and Ally Batenhorst at outside hitter and Lindsay Krause at opposite hitter. Cook said those three had been the best hitters in practice and he felt like that was their best lineup at this point.
That starting lineup did not include two-time third-team AVCA All-American Lexi Sun, though the senior did get a chance to play in both matches this week;
“She hasn’t been one of the two best outside hitters in practice,” Cook said. “But she’s rebounding, she’s slowly turning it up, which is good to see. I know it’s hard coming off the bench but I think she’s handled it really well the last two matches. She put on a block clinic at Northwestern and tonight I don’t think she got one good set, but she got three kills, hit .375 and managed really well, was smart. That’s the experience that she has.”
Cook called Sun’s number in the fourth set against Northwestern for blocking purposes, and he subbed her in early in the third set against Iowa, which he planned to do heading into the match.
With the new starting lineup playing the majority of the time, the Huskers hit .308 against Northwestern and .267 against Iowa, snapping a streak of four straight matches under .205.
Kubik led the Huskers in kills in both matches with 19 on .289 hitting against the Wildcats and 15 on .189 hitting against the Hawkeyes. She was a little too high-error on Saturday with eight miscues, but she also recorded her first double-double with 14 digs. Batenhorst had eight kills on .200 hitting on Wednesday and followed it up with six kills on .333 hitting on Saturday.
Cook said his conversation with Sun, a fifth-year senior, after he made his decision was pretty straightforward.
“It was the same to Whitney [Lauenstein] as well, that this is what we’re going to go with and you guys are competing every day and you have to try to earn your way back in the starting lineup,” Cook said. “It’s the same for the middles and really, it’s kind of same for the setters; we want Kennedi and Anni pushing. We want everybody pushing because it makes our team better.”
Krause Getting Comfortable
Krause, the highly-touted freshman out of Omaha Skutt, struggled early in her transition to right side hitter. She managed to crack .200 hitting just once in her first nine matches. Even so, Krause got the nod this week and she responded with 27 kills in two matches, hitting .500 in both.
“I just think she’s getting more comfortable over there,” Cook said after the Iowa match. “We made a decision to put Lindsay in the lineup because she competes, she talks, she does all the things that typically freshmen don’t do and she’s a warrior. So we decided to go with her and and I just think she feels more comfortable right now and she’s getting used to that. She’s played a little bit over there, but John Baylor and I were talking about that on the pregame show tonight. In football, it’s left tackle, right tackle; you don’t just flip those guys all the time. It’s hard, and you get used to one side or the other, and she’s played left side the last couple years way more than the right side. So it’s just a matter of her getting comfortable.
“But love the way she competes. She competes hard, and it’s every day. She’s got a real gift in regards to her mindset. That’s why they won so many state championships up there I think.”
I covered Krause in high school, and I can attest to all of the traits that Cook spoke about here. This week was the first time I really thought that Krause looked like herself. She was a top-two recruit in the country for a reason and is starting to show why.
Krause credited her setter and the defense behind her for her higher level of play, though she did say she’s starting to feel more comfortable in her role.
“I think just like experience comes with that,” Krause said. “I was just a little bit inexperienced when I first came. So just having that and then having my defense and having them call shots for me and stuff like that.”
Krause said the competition she faces in practice with Lauenstein on a daily basis is a great thing, but Cook’s decision to stick with his starters did help to ease nerves a bit on match day.
Chaos Reigns in the Big Ten
The Big Ten season got started with a bang as No. 2 Wisconsin, 8-0 at the time, lost on Friday against Maryland in five sets. The Terrapins were 12-0 heading into that match, but only one of those 12 wins came against another high-major opponent in Virginia. The Badgers went undefeated during the abbreviated regular season last year.
On the same night, No. 3 Ohio State, then 10-0, also lost its first league contest in five sets. That one was at least against another top-10 opponent in No. 7 Purdue and it was in West Lafayette, but it does point to the difficulty of this conference.
Michigan, a team at the tail end of the others receiving votes group in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll, pushed No. 9 Minnesota to five sets on Friday as well before the Golden Gophers pulled it out. Then Minnesota wiped the floor with Maryland on Sunday.
Cook mentioned Friday’s results to his team heading into Saturday’s match against Iowa.
“I said if you’re paying attention what’s going on and college volleyball, there’s no easy nights, so mentally we’ve got to come out and go hard every point. They were all nodding their heads so they were agreeing. It’s pretty good when you get 16 girls to agree on one thing.”
The Huskers played the only two teams with losing records heading into conference play, but they still took care of business and are off to a 2-0 start.
“It’s week one and we got two wins, so I’m happy,” Cook said. “It’s going to be really hard to get wins this year in this conference. You guys just look at what’s going on. Our focus is we’ve got to continue to get better every week to try to keep up and push ahead of teams as the season goes on.
“That’s why I changed the lineup in game three tonight because I want to make sure we’ve got people that are confident going into matches, because we’re going to we’re going to have some back-to-backs now coming up. I just think we’re going to need some of that depth and fresh arms and fresh legs and so I want to keep rotating some people in so we have options, which we didn’t last year.”
Sun’s appearance in the match against Northwestern was a strategic adjustment. Saturday against Iowa was a different story. Cook said he planned going into the match to get Sun and middle blocker Kalynn Meyer some playing time.
Both Kubik and Krause mentioned a “come to Jesus” meeting the team had after losing three straight. Level of competition certainly played. Apart in the positive results, but the Huskers definitely played better as well. Though Nebraska won six of its seven sets this week, the Huskers faced a few different close late-game situations and came out on top in most of them.
“I’m really proud of us and the way that we can keep composure when things get tight and that we can just find a way to get kills, and to win a match,” Kubik said. “Maybe it’s not perfect every time, and maybe it isn’t a perfect bump set, tooled the block or whatever. But I think we are starting to develop a really deep trust in each other that we can just find ways to make it work. That’s exciting to see.”
Cook offered another update on All-American senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins after the Iowa match.
“She was in practice yesterday, went through the whole practice,” Cook said. “It was a two-hour, 15-minute practice. I didn’t talk to her really today about how she’s feeling but she went through the whole practice. I think, physically, it’s there. Mentally, she’s got to get confident to play. When that happens, I don’t know, nobody knows. It’s just going to be one day she’s just going to feel like ‘OK, I feel like I’m confident and can do this.’”
Stivrins and Nebraska still don’t have a timeline for her return, but she’s continuing to progress in her return to the court. Whenever she does return to the lineup, it will be a game-changer for the Huskers.
“She’ll change our team dramatically,” Cook said.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.