No. 2 Nebraska suffered its first setback of the season on Tuesday night as No. 9 Stanford knocked off the Huskers on their home court in four sets. Now the Huskers (7-1) will look to bounce back in their first true road match of the season as Nebraska will head to Lexington to face No. 13 Kentucky (5-3) on Sunday to close out the nonconference schedule.
“We moved it, I think, because of football, and then TV picked it up … So that’ll put a lot of attention on it,” Coach John Cook said. “We played there several times in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s part of this four-year deal with Stanford, Kentucky and Louisville. So it’s our turn to go there. It’ll be a great road test for us leading into the Big Ten and they’re a team that’s in the hunt right now.”
Sundays match will be the third time already this season that Cook will face one of his former assistants as Craig Skinner, who spent five seasons on Cook’s staff in the early 2000s and helped the Huskers win the 2000 National Championship, is leading the Wildcats. Skinner also spent five years on Cook’s staff at Wisconsin, so the two have plenty of shared history.
The last time the two teams squared off was in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, a 3-0 sweep for the Huskers in the Sweet 16. Nebraska has won the last eight meetings and is 9-2 overall against the Wildcats.
Kentucky is coming off its own loss as well after falling at home to Dani Busboom Kelly’s No. 3 Louisville squad in a battle of former Cook assistants. The Cardinals pulled out a 15-11 win in the fifth to knock off the Wildcats in front of the seventh-largest crowd in Memorial Coliseum history.
Senior outside hitter Adanna Rollins, a Penn State transfer who began her career at Minnesota, led the Wildcats with 19 kills on .235 hitting and 10 digs against the Cardinals on Wednesday. She’s averaging 3.52 kills per set on .291 hitting. Junior opposite Reagan Rutherford is leading the team with 3.72 kills per set on .241 hitting with a team high 14 service aces in 29 sets.
Kentucky led the country in hitting percentage before the Cardinals held them to .231 on Wednesday, dropping their overall percentage down to .326 through eight matches. Sophomore setter Emma Grome is orchestrating the offense to the tune of 11.31 assists per set. On the other side of the net, opponents are hitting .209 against the Wildcats as sophomore libero Eleanor Beavin is leading the defense with 4.1 digs per set.
While the Huskers as a team will hit the road for the first time this season, the match will serve as a homecoming for senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord, a Lexington native. Her father, Derrick Hord, played basketball at Kentucky and he and her mother, Lisa Higgins-Smith, both work for the university now.
“I’m very excited,” Hord said about returning home. “Hopefully all my family comes; I mean, they better come. Now they don’t have an excuse not to see me play. So I’m very excited to see some old friends. It’ll be a good time.”
Hord actually found out that Nebraska and Kentucky were playing this season when she took a visit to Lexington while she was in the transfer portal and looking for a new home for her fifth year. Now she’ll play in that match, though it’ll be in Husker red instead of Kentucky blue.
Hord is still settling in at Nebraska and building camaraderie with Nebraska’s three setters. She’s currently averaging 1.41 kills per set on .299 hitting, both career-lows.
“Kaitlin touches very high, so it’s definitely been a different ball than we’ve set in the past,” Nicklin Hames said ahead of the Huskers match against Creighton. “So just practicing, I think just building that connection that we just started last week. So just keep working on that and then execute it in the game time because she can be a huge threat for us offensively. You’ve seen her at Penn State — she’s dangerous. So I’m just hoping we can kind of put that more into our offense.”
Setting the middles was a point of emphasis for the Huskers heading into their match against Stanford, but Hord attempted just 11 attacks in four sets, while Bekka Allick took 17 swings. They finished with five kills apiece.
“We wanted to set more middle tonight, and we didn’t set it enough,” Cook said after the loss. “They went away from it. We kept telling them to run middle, run middle, and Kaitlin’s got 11 sets. That’s not a great night by our setters, and we passed pretty well tonight, good enough to run more middle.”
All three of Nebraska’s setters played on Tuesday as Nicklin Hames had to leave the match late in the third set with an undisclosed issue. Cook said after the match that he wasn’t sure yet what kept her from continuing. With Nebraska running low on subs, Cook sent Kennedi Orr in to replace Hames and run a 5-1, and the sophomore helped the Huskers win five of the last six rallies. Nebraska went back to the 6-2 in the fourth set with Anni Evans and Orr rotating.
“It was a tough thing to come in, but she did some great things,” Cook said. “She finally hit a couple of serves, she really gave us a chance to win that game, she had a great block, she competes, but she missed some sets and that’s been why she’s not playing. But she may have to play now. I don’t know how much Nicklin will be out. She had a great opportunity to come in and help us win that match and she did some good things, but she missed some sets.”
Cook provided an update on Hames during the Nebraska Volleyball Show on Thursday’s edition of Sports Nightly.
“She’s out for right now,” Cook said. “I don’t know, it’s one of those things she just needs some rest. So, time.”
Cook said he had not yet decided who would start or whether he’d play a 5-1 or 6-2 on Sunday with Hames out of the lineup.
“It’s based on the next couple of days of practice,” Cook said. “We always work on both because when you run out of subs, you have to go to a 5-1. So if one setter can really separate and show that they can be a difference-maker and make all those hitters better — it’s better always to go with one-setter offense. If they’re both a wash, it’s better to go 6-2. So we’ll see how practice goes tomorrow and the next day and make a decision. But we can we can flip in and out of either one.”
Cook also provided an update on outside hitter Ally Batenhorst, who left the Creighton match with abdominal soreness and missed the Long Beach State and Stanford matches.
“She’s slowly coming back,” Cook said. “Again, these soft tissue injuries are stressed. So it depends on how long it takes the body to heal. But she’s doing more and more every day.”
Sunday will be Nebraska’s first time venturing beyond state lines, but Cook is counting the match against Creighton at CHI Health Center Omaha as a road match, even though the number of fans in red far outnumbered those in blue.
“Creighton was a road game for us,” Cook said. “I mean, it’s the only one we bus to. It’s all about routine.”
First serve on Sunday is set for 3 p.m. CT on ESPN2.
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.