After 13 months, volleyball is back in our lives. The Huskers have two matches — and two wins — under their belts, so let’s look back at what we learned from Nebraska’s series sweep at Indiana.
We’ll start with Coach John Cook’s thoughts on what he saw from his team.
“We’re doing some really good things,” Cook said on the radio postgame show after Saturday’s win. We are trying to do some creative things offensively, so we saw some of that. We were a little higher-error than I expected, and maybe it’s the first weekend, we haven’t played in 13 months.
“Indiana’s a pretty good team. They’re young, but there’s some talent and those two left-side hitters bomb it. They bring it, so it’s fun to block them. They had a nice game plan coming in to try to attack us out there and tip us. We had some mental errors that I haven’t been seeing in practice this last week that I saw this weekend, so we’ll teach from that and learn from that and we have to get better. We just talked about trying to be good this weekend. We shouldn’t be peaking weekend one, especially with everything that’s gone on this year.”
Nebraska hit .268 overall with 31 attack errors in six sets (5.17 errors per set). Last year, the Huskers hit .276 with 4.76 errors per set. Nebraska got off to a slow start in set one then hit over .400 in their last two sets in the season-opener as they worked off some of the rust. The Huskers actually got off to a fast start with 17 kills and .314 hitting in the first set of round two, but their offense slowed down after that.
As she usually does, Nicklin Hames did a great job of distributing her sets — 49 to Lexi Sun, 43 to Madi Kubik, 31 to Riley Zuhn, 28 to Lauren Stivrins and 23 to the second middle blocker (Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach).
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the first weekend was Zuhn, a sophomore, supplanting senior Jazz Sweet as the starting opposite hitter. Zuhn played in 25 sets as a freshman, though most of her time was at middle blocker. She recorded seven kills, seven errors and six blocks.
Back at her natural position, Zuhn showed some really good things, hitting .290 with 14 kills and seven blocks. She was the one lined up across the net from Indiana’s top attacker, Breana Edwards, and helped limit her to two kills and eight errors in the first match. At 6-foot-5, Zuhn provides a different dynamic to the lineup than Sweet, the 6-foot-3 southpaw. Sweet played just one rally the entire weekend, checking in as a blocking sub on match point on Saturday.
The biggest question mark heading onto the season was what Cook was going to do at the second middle blocker spot. Would it be the incumbent in Schwarzenbach, the transfer in Caffey or the freshman in Kalynn Meyer?
Cook gave two answers to that question as he went with Caffey on Friday and Schwarzenbach on Saturday. Caffey made a couple of splash plays early but otherwise had a modest debut with six kills and three errors on 11 swings and three block assists. She hit over .400 at Missouri last season and although she’s only 6-foot, she offers some offensive punch.
Schwarzenbach followed that up with four kills and three errors on 12 attempts and six blocks (two solo), looking much like she has the last two years — offensively limited but terrific defensively.
Cook said both practiced well enough to earn playing time, so his plan was to give them each one match as the starter. Cook played just eight players in the season-opener — the starters, the libero and one reserve. He expanded that a bit to 10 players on Saturday with Hayley Densberger playing in two sets and Sweet getting that last rep.
“We’ve got to start working some players in to get them comfortable because I think we’re going to need it when you’re playing the same team back-to-back,” Cook said. “We may have to make some adjustments and we’ve got a lot of players that can help us, so I want to start trying to get them in matches.”
Freshman defensive specialist Keonilei Akana technically started both matches because of the rotation Nebraska started in, and she made some impressive digs throughout the weekend. It’s no surprise, but she won the right-back job that used to belong to Megan Miller before she left the program. Akana served one ace, but she also had a team-high five errors as well so that’s an area for improvement.
Speaking of serving, Nebraska dished out 11 aces in the two matches while limiting opponents to seven aces. Both teams recorded 17 service errors. Cook was excited about what he saw from his servers in the preseason, and they definitely showed some improvement after averaging just 1.1 aces per set last season. Lexi Sun led the way with five aces and four errors (Cook will take that ration every weekend) to go with her team-high 22 kills.
Indiana was picked to finish 11th in the preseason by the Big Ten coaches. Nebraska’s next opponent, Northwestern, was picked to finish 10th, so it looks to be a similar challenge to what the Huskers faced this weekend.
I’m looking forward to getting back down to the Devaney Center and seeing this team in person on Friday and Saturday.
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.