Coach John Cook has put reigning champion Stanford up on a pedestal as the standard the Huskers are striving for.
On Wednesday night, Nebraska fell short of reaching that standard in a rematch of last year’s national championship as the No. 2 Cardinal (6-1) — coming off a four-set loss to No. 8 Minnesota — handed the No. 1 Huskers (7-1) their first loss of the season in four (25-21, 22-25, 25-17, 25-16).
“I think the biggest difference is Stanford plays consistently at a high level, doesn’t give you anything and we’re not there yet,” Cook said. “We played glimpses of really good volleyball. We did some good things. I thought this was probably the best we’ve played all year. We didn’t get the result we wanted but Stanford is really good.”
Nebraska fans showed up in force, setting a new Devaney Center attendance record of 8,632.
“Electric atmosphere,” Cook said. “The crowd was awesome even though Stanford was getting us pretty good in games three and four. What a great environment for college volleyball, so hats off to our fans. I saw a lot of who’s who in Nebraska tonight here and it was just electric down there. I think both teams really appreciated it and fed off of it. It was a fun match, just to be down there and watching it.”
Stanford hit .294 with just 13 attack errors and held a 12-7 edge in blocks. The Huskers hit a season-low .150. Stanford was aggressive from the service line, finishing with seven aces and 14 errors while making it tough for the Huskers to play in-system. Nebraska went toe-to-toe with Stanford for long stretches of the match, but the games got away from them after the intermission as the Cardinal went on some extended runs and the Huskers couldn’t find a way to slow them down.
“I feel like we were going after it, but I felt like at times we would let a string of points get away from us,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “I feel like overall, we just need to be a lot more consistent with our serving and our passing and with everything that we’re doing. You see it: in moments we’re really great and we’re right there with them, and then we kind of go down a level. I feel like the next step for us is being a lot more consistent.”
Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik emerged as Nebraska’s go-to hitter in the match, leading Nebraska with 14 kills on 46 sets, but she also made 10 attack errors. Nobody else got more than 28 sets. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun had nine kills on .200 hitting, 14 kills and three blocks. Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet had nine kills on .179 hitting. Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had nine kills on .190 hitting and three blocks.
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had 40 assists, 16 digs and three kills. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles had 15 digs. Sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller had eight digs and both of Nebraska’s aces. Cook said Miller played “great.”
“I thought she set the tone to probably win game two,” Cook said. “She was aggressive tonight, assertive and made some really nice plays, passed pretty well. That’s what we need from those guys. They’ve got to bring it, especially the ones that are coming off the bench like that.”
Sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis made her return to the court after missing Nebraska’s previous five matches with a strained abdominal muscle. She finished with three kills and two errors on seven swings in limited playing time as Cook eases her back into the lineup.
Nebraska looked a little timid early on, opting for a lot of tips that didn’t fall, and Stanford jumped out to an 8-2 lead. Nebraska recorded one kill in the first 10 rallies of the match. The Huskers chipped away at the deficit and got it down to four but Stanford responded with a 5-1 run to take an 18-10 lead.
Miller subbed in and gave the Huskers a spark from the service line, leading a 5-0 run capped by an ace that pulled the Huskers within three. After trading points, Cook used the double substitution with freshman Nicole Drewnick and Anezka Szabo and got a point out of it as Drewnick set up Sun for a kill that pulled the Huskers within two.
After trading sideouts, Stanford scored two straight to pull ahead 23-19. Nebraska answered with the next two points but Stanford finished it off from there for a four-point victory.
The Cardinal hit .306 in the opening set and only committed three attack errors. After hitting 0.74 during Stanford’s 16-9 start, Nebraska closed out the set .500 to finish .205 in the frame. It was too little too late to get the win, though. Kubik led the Huskers with five kills on 13 swings, though she also had three errors.
Stanford pulled ahead 4-2 early but Nebraska kept it close this time and took its first lead of the match at 8-7 on a kill by Sweet. Stanford took the lead back but Nebraska used a 3-0 run capped by a Stivrins kill on the slide to pull ahead 12-10.
Another lead change and three ties later, Stanford was up 16-15. Nebraska countered with a 4-0 run served by Sun to take a 19-16 lead. The Cardinal cut it to one, but a Kubik kill and a Miller ace pushed the lead back to threw at 22-19. After a timeout, Stanford ripped off three straight points including two attack errors by Kubik to the the match at 22-all.
Nebraska ended Stanford’s run with a Stivrins kill aided by a Cardinal net violation and Kubik bounced back with two tough serves that led to Stanford errors, sealing the match for the Huskers and tying the match at 1-1.
Stanford out-hit Nebraska .308 to .278 but three Stanford service errors gave Nebraska the edge. Stivrins notched four kills in the set while Kubik and Sun added three apiece.
Nebraska and Stanford traded blows early in set three until a 6-0 run featuring plenty of Nebraska miscues gave the Cardinal a 14-8 lead. After trading a few sideouts, Stanford delivered the knockout blow with a 3-0 run that gave the Cardinal a 17-10 lead, and they cruised from there.
The Huskers finally held the Cardinal under .300 hitting (at .250) but hit in the negative themselves with seven kills and eight errors plus a pair of service errors for good measure.
After four ties in the first 14 rallies of the fourth set, the Cardinal took control and scored 12 of the next 14 points including an 8-0 run that gave them a 19-9 lead. A Stanford service error finally snapped the run and Sun followed it up with a kill to cut the deficit to eight, but that’s as close as the Huskers got as Stanford closed out the match in four.
Stanford hit .304 with one attack error while Nebraska hit .114.
“Hats off to Stanford,” Cook said. “They’re good, and they should be. They’ve got six seniors and whatever they’ve got over there and return all of their passers. They’ve also played four other top-10 teams; we’re not used to playing at this level yet for that long. That’s why this is a really good match for us. We learned a lot from tonight about what we need to do and our mindset.”
Nebraska may not have passed it’s most difficult test thus far, but there’s still a lot of season remaining. Cook said he’s hoping takes the lessons from the loss and carries them forward.
“Now they understand what they need to work on, what I’ve been talking to them about,” Cook said. “You can talk about it all you want but now you see it and feel it and it’s a different ball game. The test will be our next match. Do we come out and continue to play this way and continue to play more consistently at a high level?”
Nebraska will close out the nonconference schedule on Saturday afternoon as Wichita State comes to town. The Shockers (3-6) will take part in the Creighton Classic first, taking on the host Bluejays on Thursday and Wyoming on Saturday, before heading down the Lincoln to close out the weekend against the Huskers. First serve is set for 3 p.m. at the Devaney Center. NET will televise the match.
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.