Nebraska improved to 12-2 this season with a pair of sweeps against Iowa this week, one in Iowa City and one in Lincoln.
Bah Gawd that’s Jazz Sweet’s Music
The opposite hitter position has been a struggle for Nebraska most of the season. Riley Zuhn beat out returning starter Jazz Sweet to start the season, but after a good first four matches she began to struggle. Coach John Cook turned back to Sweet at different points, but she too struggled to sustain offensive success.
That picture became a bit clearer this week as the Huskers have lost Zuhn for the season because of a broken bone in her foot. Cook said they think she injured it on Monday, but she gutted out practice on Tuesday and played briefly against Iowa on Wednesday. Then Nebraska returned to Lincoln and Zuhn got an MRI, and the Huskers learned the bad news.
The opposite hitter job belongs to Sweet for the rest of the season, and her performance against Iowa was a big step forward. She totaled 19 kills and just three errors on 27 attacks (.593 hitting) in six sets against the Hawkeyes.
“She hasn’t had a great year, and I want her to write a great chapter for her career here on how she finishes the season,” Cook said. “She’s been training really well, we’ve been working her really hard and she had a pretty good week. Now the competition will ramp up a little so it’s another great challenge for her. But she’s been there, she knows she can do it and I think Nicklin [Hames] is setting her better than she ever has; that’s going to help her too.”
Sweet was Nebraska’s most effective attacker on Saturday as she finished with a season-high 12 kills while hitting .733, the second highest hitting percentage of her career (she hit .750 on just eight attempts as a freshman).
“Normally Jazz hits a lot of balls to middle back and I’m always talking to her about that, but she had great range tonight, moved it all over the place, and that’s what makes her effective,” Cook said. “She’s not like [Stephanie] Samedy who’s going to go up there and bounce balls inside the 10-foot line. She’s got to be a creative attacker, and she’s been working all season on being really creative. So when she’s confident, she can do that. I thought she was really hard to defend tonight. They had no idea how to defend her.”
Sweet made a big impact as a freshman in 2017, and entrenched herself as the starter on the right side the last two seasons. Her senior year certainly hasn’t played out the way she expected, but she’s stayed ready despite her reduced role.
“It’s just been the same thing as always, just focusing on my training and just always being ready to go for whatever they need me to do, whenever I need to hop in to help somebody out or take over the right side position and be able to handle that,” Sweet said. “It’s just the same thing I always did, train hard, focus on that and come in trusting my training.”
Early in the year, Sweet wasn’t playing at all outside of a couple of points here and there when Cook deployed the double substitution, using Sweet in the front row as a blocker in place of Hames. Later on, as Zuhn started to struggle, Cook gave Sweet an opportunity to play opposite hitter here and there. She had only played in 22 of Nebraska’s 43 sets heading into this week.
“All season she’s talked to me about wanting to help the team however she could, whether it’s in a practice or a match, starter or non-starter,” Cook said. “That’s the first start, is wanting to help this team. Now she has a great opportunity to really help this team. I think one of the reasons she played so well this week is because she competed really hard against Riley last week and early in practice this week. Those guys went at it Monday; we had them going at it and Jazz won all the competitions. So I just think she got a boost of confidence from that because what they went through in practice is way harder than what they went through in the matches this week.”
It’s a luxury having someone as experienced as Sweet sitting on the bench when injury strikes, but the Huskers can’t afford any more bad luck at outside hitter. Nebraska is down to just three pin hitters in Lexi Sun, Madi Kubik and Sweet. Sweet isn’t worried, though.
“Just to compete and go hard,” Sweet said about her mentality. “We’ve all played in big matches before, so we know what we need to do and we all know the responsibility we have on ourselves just to stay healthy, do what we need to do, rehab, everything like that and just take care of ourselves and make sure that we’re doing what we need to do for the team.”
Cook mentioned that Kenzie Knuckles and Keonilei Akana could fill in if need be (they both hit in high school), and freshman middle blocker Kalynn Meyer could potentially fill in out at opposite hitter, but the best option is simply to keep everyone healthy for the last month of the season.
“We’ve been in this situation before; we’ve won national championship with just three hitters,” Cook said. “Sometimes you get to this point and your depth’s thin. The good thing is they know they’re never going to get subbed out.”
Zuhn wasn’t the only Husker who wasn’t able to play against the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Defensive specialists Hayley Densberger and Emma Gabel weren’t even in the building for the match because of COVID-19 contact tracing.
“It’s a big concern because we have some issue and we’re doing everything we can to protect the team,” Cook said. “That’s why Hayley and Emma weren’t here tonight. We could have had them here in masks, but they chose and decided they would try to do everything not to expose anybody. We felt safe, even though we antigen tested everybody and they were negative. But they made that decision; that was not my decision. They’re trying to look out for the team.”
The Huskers have had two weekend series canceled/postponed because of COVID-19 issues in other programs, but this week is the first time an issue has popped up close to home. Fortunately, it appears to be mostly precautionary, but the Huskers have decided better safe than sorry.
“This is the scary part about about playing in all this,” Cook continued. “There’s so much out of our control and it takes a lot of the fun out of it because you just don’t know. We’re hoping everything stays good.”
The good news is the Huskers are in the home stretch and the finish line is in sight. The NCAA Tournament is set to begin in three-and-a-half weeks.
Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins is leading the Big Ten in hitting this season at .466, and she’s also leading Nebraska in both total and solo blocks. This week, Cook gave her a chance to show a different part of her game as well: her serving.
The results were mixed. She had an ace in each match against the Hawkeyes and she served a couple of Nebraska runs, but she also committed four errors in each match.
“What we evaluate is how we’re point-scoring in that rotation,” Cook said. “I don’t know what we scored tonight, I haven’t seen it yet; we scored at 55% — which was really good — Wednesday night. She’s got a great serve. If she can just manage it and keep it more consistent and trust it, it’s a really weapon for us because she’s 6-4, so it’s coming at a different angle than like Kenzie Knuckles or Keonilei or Nicklin … If Lauren could just clean up a few errors here and there, it can be a real weapon for us.
“She can play D and she can hit out of the back row, so we’re working on that and we think it can be a weapon. I’d like to see her just be a little bit more consistent.”
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.