LINCOLN, Neb. – The No. 1 Nebraska volleyball team showed how dominant it can be on Friday, sweeping No. 4 Wisconsin at the Devaney Center. On Sunday, however, the Huskers (18-1, 9-1) had to show how resiliency as they battled back to take down No. 3 Minnesota in five sets (24-26, 25-18, 26-24, 22-25, 15-8) in front of a crowd of 8,363.
“A classic Final Four-type atmosphere, a Final Four type match and two great teams just battling point by point,” Coach John Cook said. “It was actually a lot of fun just to watch this match. It was very high level and I think both teams should feel really good about their effort tonight. We did not play our best in some areas, but a lot of that has to do with Minnesota is a very good team and they stress you in a lot of ways. But we found a way to win and I thought we played really good volleyball in game five.”
Senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes was all over the floor on Sunday and set a new school record with 35 digs in the match, besting her previous career-high of 30 as well as the old record of 34.
“She’s one of the top liberos in the country,” Cook said. “She made a play in game five that was ridiculous … We were trying to funnel a bunch of balls to her; that’s why she had so many digs. She’s a phenomenal player.”
Sunday’s battle was only the second time the Huskers have been pushed to a fifth set this season. Nebraska rallied back from down 0-2 to beat Michigan State in five a month earlier.
Through the first half of the first set, it looked like the game against Minnesota was going to be a repeat of Nebraska’s win over Wisconsin. The Huskers were rolling and jumped out to a 14-7 lead. However, they let the game slip away as the Gophers rallied back to win and take a 1-0 lead.
Nebraska built up a seven-point lead again in the second set, but this time they managed to close it out. Minnesota cut the deficit the three at 20-17, but Nebraska responded with a 5-1 run to even the match.
Nebraska found itself in serious trouble in the third set as the Gophers used a 6-2 run to earn a set point at 24-21. Amber Rolfzen terminated to get the sideout for Nebraska, and Kadie Rolfzen stepped up to the service line. Rolfzen had already committed three service errors by that point, but she got past that to guide the Huskers to five straight points thanks in part to an ace – the first of the day for the Huskers – that gave the Huskers a 25-24 lead and a set point.
“Kadie hit some really big serves,” Cook said. “I think she got an ace and our defense really stepped up, and the crowd got into it. It’s hard to win that last point.”
The Huskers managed to do so where Minnesota could not, however, as Amber Rolfzen teamed up with setter Kelly Hunter for a double-stuff block against Minnesota freshman Lexi Hart.
“I think we all had the mindset that we can’t give up because that’s the easy way out,” senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes said. “Shout-out to Kadie for going back to the service line and trusting her serves and getting us back into that game. It would have been easy to just call it quits but I think everyone came into that huddle and said ‘we are winning this game.’”
Minnesota led wire-to-wire in the fourth set to tie the match at 2-2. However, after falling behind by as much as eight, the Huskers did right themselves a bit to cut the deficit to two before Minnesota slammed the door shut with a kill by Hannah Tapp.
The fifth set was all Nebraska. The Huskers stormed out to a 5-0 behind a couple of kills from Kadie Rolfzenand the Gophers never got closer than within three at 7-4. The Huskers recorded four of their season-high 17 blocks in the final frame.
“It was a huge team win,” Wong-Orantes said. “We had some ups and downs throughout the whole match but I think we just fought together as a whole team. It was really great to see the offseason paying off and what we did in the summer, just everything really truly came out in that match and it was an amazing feeling.”
Kadie Rolfzen came up big down the stretch, but Sunay was one of her worst overall performances of the season as she finished with nine kills and eight attack errors as well as four service errors to just one ace.
“It was just an off night and Kelly was struggling setting her,” Cook said. “It was just a combination of two things. Sometimes when a hitter starts off and gets a couple tough sets, they lose their confidence. I told Kelly going into game five, I said ‘You’ve got to get Kadie the ball because we’re going to need her to win this match.’ She set her on the very first one over there and a sideout and then she got a really big kill in transition; she bounced that thing … It was good to see her pull through that.”
Even with their most consistent offensive performer struggling, the Huskers managed to take down a top five opponent.
“It’s a team game,” Cook said. “Briana [Holman] made a play in game five on the floor, one hand, popped it up. Of course, Justine was awesome. Sydney Townsend came in. It was just a total team effort. For this group, sometimes we rely on our talent and don’t win as a team and tonight we won as a team. That’s what the big takeaway is from this match.”
The Huskers finished with 77 digs in addition to their 17 blocks and held the Gophers to .159 hitting in the match.
“Briana had a double-double as a middle and Justine 35 digs,” Cook said. “I told the team going in it was going to be the back row that is going to determine this match, and I think Justine listened for once.”
Holman set new season-highs with 17 kills and 10 blocks for her first double-double as a Husker and she did it while hitting .467. Hunter also set a new career-high with 65 assists and chipped in three kills, three blocks, four digs and an ace for good measure as she led the Huskers to .267 hitting.
Sophomore outside hitter Mikaela Foecke took advantage of limited opportunities to finish with seven kills on 15 swings against the Badgers, but on Sunday Hunter fed her early and often. Foecke finished with a season-high 20 kills and hit .298. The 20 kills tied her for game0high honors with Minnesota’s Sarah Wilhite, but it took the Huskers’ top left side hitter 21 fewer attempts to do it.
“If you look at what she’s doing this year compared to last year at this time, she is way ahead of where she was,” Cook said. “She was a very average hitter for us at this time in the first half of the Big Ten last year. She just finished really strong and had a great Final Four.”
This weekend might have had the feel of a Final Four, but the truth is the Huskers have only arrived at the halfway mark of Big Ten play. The Huskers will begin the second half with two more home games next weekend as Illinois and Northwestern will come to town.
“They’re learning how hard they are going to have to fight every night, but it’s just one night and we have 10 more really tough matches to go,” Cook said.
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.