After five straight home matches against unranked opponents, No. 2 Nebraska will hit the road this week. The Huskers will face No. 17 Creighton in Omaha on Wednesday, and they’ll do it in front of what will likely be one of the largest crowds to see a regular season match all year.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 14,000 tickets had been sold for the 5 p.m. match at CHI Health Center Omaha, on pace to break the single-match record for the largest regular-season volleyball-only crowd in NCAA history (14,0222 for Creighton and Nebraska in 2018).
“This is a celebration of two nationally ranked volleyball programs and it could break an attendance record,” Coach John Cook said. “So it’s just a reflection of volleyball is a state treasure here. It’s a great example for all the young kids playing, all the high school teams that are playing, just to see how important volleyball is here. The Final Four is going to be in the same building in December, so it’s a very significant match in that regard.”
Both teams held their positions from last week in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll, making Wednesday’s match officially a top-20 showdown.
All seven ranked Big Ten teams remained in the top-25 this week while future ranked opponents No. 11 Stanford and No. 14 Kentucky moved up one and two spots, respectively. Pepperdine cracked the top 25 as well at No. 24, jumping up 10 spots from last week when the Waves were ninth among others receiving votes.
The Huskers are playing the Bluejays in Omaha for the second straight season, specifically because Cook wanted to give his team a chance to play in the arena that will host the Final Four. In return, the Jays will visit the Devaney Center in 2023 and 2024.
Last season was the first time Nebraska has played against Creighton in Omaha since 2018 because of the COVID-19 pandemic that altered the 2020-21 season. For most of the players on the roster, the 3-0 sweep in front of an announced crowd of 11,279 was a new experience.
“Last year when we played them, I was not expecting it to be as fun as what it was and just how the gym felt and how big the rivalry actually was,” senior captain Kenzie Knuckles said. “But after we left the match last year, we were like ‘Wow, that was so much fun.’ So I kind of have that to look back on and that’s why I’m super excited about it for Wednesday.”
Knuckles said it felt like the whole state of Nebraska was in the building watching them last season, even more than it usually does for the program that leads the country in attendance year in and year out.
“We get that feeling at Devaney, but they’re all our fans,” Knuckles said. “So just knowing that it’s Nebraska versus Nebraska kind of, and it’s just super fun kind of being not that far away from home, and the CHI building is huge.”
The only player currently on the team who has played in that environment twice is Nicklin Hames, who started at setter as a freshman in the 2018 five-set thriller in Omaha.
“I remember as a freshman, I was shocked,” Hames said. “I was like, ‘All these people are here for volleyball? This is crazy.’ Just to see how much support volleyball has in this state and how strong of a fan base there is, I just think it’s so cool that we can get 14,000 at a volleyball match; that’s unheard of and it just shows how much support volleyball has in the state of Nebraska, which I think is really cool.”
The crowd will play a factor, but the dimensions of an arena of that size make a difference as well. That’s another reason why Cook made it a priority for a team with aspirations of returning there in December to play the match in Omaha again this year.
“I would say playing in a big arena like that, if you’re not used to it or if you haven’t seen it, it can play a factor in how your team plays,” Knuckles said. “Just like the intimidation factor and also just depth perception, I would say, too. If you’re normally playing in a smaller gym and then you go into a huge arena, your depth perception is going to be very different — serving-wise, setting-wise — and you’re trying to push balls out there. So it’s very beneficial.”
Knuckles said the Huskers benefit from that phenomenon themselves with the Devaney Center compared to most volleyball venues. As big as the Devaney Center is, however, the CHI Health Center seats twice as many and then some, and it will be a new experience for the team’s freshmen in particular, something for which the veterans are working to prepare the newcomers.
“Our freshmen have so much skill, so it’s not even that, it’s not even like ‘Oh, you need to bring this,’” Knuckles said. “It’s more of how do we have productive huddles? How do we, mentality-wise, stay in the game? How do we fight back when these things are thrown at us. So it’s more of mentality things that I would say that we’re working on and not even just with the freshmen, as a team in general. Just when you have a new team right out of the gate, it’s really beneficial to get to know each other and know how each other plays and what we need on the court versus off the court.”
Lexi Rodriguez said the Huskers thrive in big environments and in front of big crowds after Nebraska’s win against Ole Miss on Saturday, and Hames agreed with that assessment on Monday.
“I think we live for those big moments playing under the lights and we really enjoy that, especially when there are a bunch of fans,” Hames said. “So I think everyone’s going to do a really good job this weekend and I think everyone’s getting pretty excited about it.”
Hames said the vibes are just a little bit different heading into a rivalry match like the one they’ll play on Wednesday, and the arena just adds to that.
The atmosphere is only one part of the challenge; from an on-court perspective, Creighton will be the toughest opponent Nebraska has seen thus far. The Bluejays are off to a 5-1 start despite a 3-1 setback at home against Kentucky on Saturday that included a 25-5 loss in set three.
“Their two outsides are really solid; Norah Sis is having a great year and Keeley [Davis] has been around for a while,” Cook said. “I think their setter’s really good and they’ve got a nice libero transfer. But it’s Creighton volleyball, they’re very well coached, they play great volleyball, they’re very solid in everything that they do and that’s why they’ve been so successful.”
Sis, the sophomore pin-hitter from Papillion and the preseason Big East Player of the Year, is averaging 4.09 kills per set on .243 hitting. Davis, a fifth-year senior, is adding 2.59 kill per set on .252 hitting and is leading the team with 11 service aces. Morehead State transfer Allison Whitten is leading the team with 3.32 digs per set form the libero spot while sophomore setter Kendra Wait is doing a bit of everything with 10.27 assists, 2.68 digs and 1.18 kills per set.
Creighton is hitting .242 and allowing opponents to hit .204, and the Jays have a one-to-one ace-to-error ratio.
“They have great hitters,” Knuckles said. “We haven’t watched film on them yet, but just from what I know is that they have really great hitters and they’re pretty scrappy as well. They run a great offense so we’re going to have to, defensively, be pretty good.”
The Huskers said they’re looking forward to the step up in competition as the look to solidify their lineup and rotations, particularly with the experimentation they’ve been doing with the 6-2 offense.
“This is kind of like a baseline of how we do and what we need to work on and things that we already have that might be one of our strengths,” Knuckles said. “And I think Creighton is a really good match for that because they’re really good competition physically, but also just the rivalry that we have with them.”
FS1 will televise the match on Wednesday.
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.