A dominant defensive effort delivered No. 2 Nebraska a sweep over Denver to complete the Friday sweep in the Ameritas Players Challenge.
The Huskers (6-0) took down the Pioneers (6-2) 25-23, 25-17, 25-12 in front of an announced crowd of 8,177 at the Devaney Center.
“I thought we were a little better tonight and did a really good job defensively on Denver,” Coach John Cook said. “That’s a team we prepared for this week because we knew when that offense is humming it’s very effective, so we did a good job of defending that and I’m really pleased with that. I just thought we were a little high-error there at the beginning and smoothed it out and got a nice rhythm there in game three.”
Nebraska held Denver to minus-.021 hitting featuring an 11-3 edge in blocks. Five different Huskers finished with three or more blocks led by junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins with six.
“Our blocking was really good tonight,” Cook said. “When we have 11 blocks in three games, that’s pretty good. I thought we did a really good job blocking and not only that, but how many balls did we touch that we could convert? They had very few clean kills tonight. We followed the game plan really well. Their middles lit up Loyola this morning and we shut their middles down … Between their two middles they had three kills and hit negative, so that’s a really good credit to Callie [Scwhwarzenbach] and Lauren because we had a game plan to stop them and they did a great job.”
The Huskers scored nearly as many points off Denver attack errors (29) as their own kills (33) as they hit .207 as a team. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun and freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik led a balanced Nebraska attack with seven kills apiece. Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had 21 assists, seven digs and four kills while freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles recorded a match-high 11 digs.
After an error-filled start to the set for both sides, the Huskers put together a 6-1 run to create the first bit of separation at 13-9. A pair of attack errors by Kubik cut the lead in half but Hames went quick set to the middle on the next two rallies and Schwarzenbach and Stivrins each terminated to push the lead back to four.
Denver cut it down to one at 19-18 but Nebraska won a crazy rally featuring a tough one-handed save by Sun in front of the Nebraska bench, sparking a 4-1 run that gave the Huskers set point. Nebraska proceeded to hit three straight errors from there to let the Pioneers back into the match.
After a timeout to regroup, Hames went to her co-captain on a quick set, but Denver dug it. The play resulted in an overpass, however, and when Hames got the ball she went right back to Stivrins who terminated on her second attempt.
The late miscues dragged Nebraska’s hitting percentage down to .135 with eight attack errors but the Huskers held the Pioneers to .083 hitting. Stivrins and Sun led the way with four kills apiece.
After trading points early, Nebraska blew the second set wide open with a 9-0 run that made it 13-4. Stivrins had three blocks and a kill during that run and Hames added a pair of kills herself. Denver responded with a 3-0 run but got no closer than that the rest of the way. Kubik closed out the set with her fifth kill of the night.
Nebraska only hit .156 with 10 kills in the second set but the Pioneers hit .000 with nine attack errors and four service errors. At the intermission, Sun was hitting a match-high .286 with a team-high six kills.
Nebraska scored the first four points of the third set on Denver attack errors, three of which were caused by Nebraska blocks. Schwarzenbach and Sun each had a pair of blocks during that stretch including a solo stuff for Sun. The bock party continued as Nebraska took an 8-2 lead, recording five blocks in the first 10 rallies.
“Compared to the first [set], the coaches told us to be a lot more disciplined,” Schwarzenbach said. “Compared to the game we played this morning, they were a lot faster offensively so we had to be a lot more disciplined and that showed in our last set.”
Leading 13-5, Cook used a double-substitution to get freshman setter Nicole Drewnick and junior opposite hitter Anezka Szabo into the match. Drewnick missed her serve, but Cook left her in for one more point and she set Szabo up for a kill as the South Dakota native tooled the Denver block.
Denver got a kill to pull within seven before the Huskers ripped off seven straight with Sun serving. Denver responded with a 5-1 run but that only cut the lead to 10 and Nebraska finished the match on a 3-0 run. Cook sent freshman middle blocker Riley Zuhn into the game on match point and she proceeded to record the match-point assist on a bump set to Hames for the winner.
“What happens is in volleyball, when you feel like you can’t get a kill, you’re getting blocked, you’re getting dug, our serves are going in and we’re not letting them off the hook, it feels suffocating over there and it just gets very frustrating,” Cook said. “That’s what our team’s capable of doing.”
Nebraska hit .444 in the third and held Denver to minus-.161 with 12 errors. The Huskers recorded six blocks in the set.
Nebraska played six sets in the span of eight hours and found the energy to play its best volleyball in the final one.
“I thought we did a really good job finishing out today, especially since we played earlier,” Schwarzenbach said. “We haven’t really played two games in a day for a while.”
Nebraska will close out tournament play against Loyola Marymount on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. The Lions fell to Denver in a five-set match that included both teams hitting above .300 on Friday morning then bounced back to sweep High Point on Friday evening.
Savannah Slattery led Loyola Marymount with 14 kills on .355 hitting against High Point after posting 17 kills on .424 hitting against Denver. Rose Booth led the Lions in the first match with 20 kills on .400 hitting.
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.