On Saturday night, No. 3 Nebraska (14-1, 5-0) will face its toughest test to date as the Huskers welcome No. 5 Minnesota (11-2, 5-0) to Lincoln.
“I think they’re a great offensive team,” senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said. “Even just knowing them in the past, they have a great setter and she executes really well and they obviously have some very big hitters. For us, the biggest thing will be serve, block and D and getting them out of system so they can’t run their fast paced offense like they like to, and really just trying to break them down.”
Samantha Seliger-Swenson is a four-year starter and three-time All-American who was named Big ten Setter of the Year as a sophomore. She’s finished in the top two in the conference in assists per set each of the last three seasons.
Seliger-Swenson has no shortage of weapons to serve in that Minnesota lineup. Sophomore opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy is leading the team with 3.84 kills per set on .289 hitting this season after being named a first-team All-American as a freshman. Junior outside hitter Alexis Hart, who garnered third-team All-America honors as a sophomore, leads a group of five Gophers who are averaging between two and three kills per set.
Minnesota is leading the Big Ten in attacking with 14.86 kills per set and .305 hitting. However, the Huskers are the best defensive team in the country, setting up a clash of opposing styles. The Huskers are coming off a strong defensive performance against a good offensive team in Iowa, beating the Hawkeyes in four sets (25-10, 23-25, 25-15, 25-11) and holding them to .071 hitting on Wednesday night.
“When you win games 10, 15 and 11, we’re doing something pretty good,” Coach John Cook said. “They hit negative games three and four. That team was hitting .240 I think in the Big ten for the first four matches. That’s what we talk about — we have to pressure teams. Now with this stretch coming up, we’ve got to be really good defensively.”
That stretch refers to the entire month of October basically as the Gophers are only the beginning. Nebraska also plays at No. 9 Penn State and at No. 6 Wisconsin and has a rematch with Minnesota in Minneapolis back to back to back. The Huskers will also face No. 8 Illinois for a second time before Halloween after taking down the Illini in four sets in Champaign last week.
“It’s going to be tough, but this is going to force our team to go to another level,” Cook said. “That’s how I look at it. It happens every year — you play this stretch of all these top 10 teams, you’ve got to come in and raise your level. I look at it as it’s going to bring out the best in us … I saw it at Illinois: we went in there and we knew we had to raise our level from the night before at Northwestern. I think these guys thrive in big matches, but every match in the Big Ten is big.”
In order for the Huskers to survive that stretch, their defense will have to be as sharp as ever.
“As long as you play good defense, you have a chance to win, whether you have a great offensive night or not,” Cook said. “That’s what we always want to go in with, but I just go back and look at it every year. Whoever has the lowest opponent hitting efficiency in the Big Ten wins it. It’s been a 100 percent correlation.”
Nebraska’s .110 opponent hitting percentage is by far the best in the conference to this point with Penn State and Michigan tied in second place at .144. What’s the key to the Blackshorts’ success?
“I think it’s our training and our mindset,” Cook said. “Defense is about effort and heart and attitude and mindset. Kenzie [Maloney] initiates all of that and I just think it’s the way we train — we make it important and our players believe in it.”
Maloney, the senior co-captain and libero, is capable of covering as much ground defensively as anyone in the conference and she sets the tone for the team, but she’s not alone. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames has nine double-doubles on the year and is averaging 2.93 digs per set as well.
“She is amazing at defense,” Maloney said about Hames. “I think we’re getting a lot more balls up than we have in the past and then it puts more pressure on me to out-of-system set, so I’ve gotten better at it so I thank her for that; she’s giving me more reps on out-of-system setting. She’s done a great job.”
Nebraska has also been strong at the net as they are fourth in the conference in blocks per set. Callie Schwarzenbach, a 6-foot-5 freshman, has played big part in that as she is leading the league with 1.65 blocks per set.
“Again, I think it’s our training and our preparation,” Cook said. “Efficiency-wise we’re blocking at a really high level. We’ve got a lot of young players. This is another year in the program. Callie really has helped that as a blocker as a freshman. Jazz [Sweet] is another year older. I just think it’s our training and our preparation that allows us to be good on that, and we’ve spent a lot of time one it.”
In addition to a strong performance by the whole team on defense, Nebraska is going to need Foecke to keep up her torrid pace. The senior has shown her immense talent throughout her career — she does have two NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player awards under her belt — but this season she has found a new level of consistency for the Huskers.
Foecke is second among outside hitters in the Big Ten in hitting percentage behind only Wisconsin’s Madison Duello. She’s hitting .338 on 3.69 kills per set with 2.44 digs per set, all career highs. She is also leading the team with 24 aces.
“She’s just seeing the court, Nicklin sets her really well,” Cook said after Nebraska’s win over Iowa. “I told her and Lexi [Sun] they put on a clinic tonight hitting. They moved the ball all over the place, they hit shots, they mixed it up, they go off the block, Mikaela sees the openings in the court. Nicklin’s doing a nice job of setting them and they’re seeing the court really well.”
Foecke credits her success to her teammates.
“I just say it’s our team, honestly,” Foecke said after the Iowa match. “This year we have a very balanced offense and we’re so good in every single position that blockers aren’t just on me or on Lexi or on Jazz. When they come to me, we’re setting Jazz and Jazz played great tonight. I think that’s one of the best things about Nebraska volleyball, that we are so balanced that it frees up blocks for us.”
Even so, Foecke still has to take advantage of the opportunities she sees and she’s doing that at a better clip than ever before. Sun said the senior has every shot in the book and that all the work she put in during the offseason is showing on the court.
— Terry Pettit (@TerryPettit1) October 4, 2018
Despite Cook’s best efforts to move the match up, first serve will take place at 7 p.m on Saturday at the Devaney Center on NET.
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.