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No. 3 Huskers Back at Home to Face No. 14 Penn State, RV Northwestern

October 14, 2022

After two weeks spent mostly on the road, the Nebraska volleyball team is back at home and will play in the friendly confines of the Devaney Center this weekend.

The Huskers have perhaps felt the wear and tear from the travel as the program hasn’t exactly been at full health recently. Bekka Allick missed Saturday’s match against No. 24 Michigan with an illness, and Coach John Cook was dealing with his own sickness early in the week.

The silver lining of Allick missing a match was that it provided an opportunity for Ally Batenhorst to play her first full match since suffering an abdominal strain against Creighton. She missed four matches, then Cook began easing her in as she played in two sets against Ohio State then one set each against Rutgers, Maryland and Michigan State.

With Allick sidelined, Cook moved Maggie Mendelson back to middle blocker, slid Lindsay Krause back to the right side and inserted Batenhorst as the second let side hitter. She finished with seven kills on .227 hitting and two blocks against the Wolverines.

“It was really exciting getting back out there with my teammates again and just kind of coming back from my injury,” Batenhorst said. “Just really fun and exciting for me … It’s definitely been a ride, just kind of having to recover and do rehab for my injury. Mentally I’ve just been trying to stay in it and work hard and focus on the things I can control and it’s been really fun. I’m just grinding it out in practice and doing the best I can to get back out on the court.”

Batenhorst found out the morning of the match that she’d have a chance to play a big role since Allick wasn’t able to go through practice, and said she was focused on providing as much energy and fire as she could once Cook called her number.

“She missed quite a bit and it has taken her a while to get back into it,” Cook said. “But we got on the bus and I said ‘OK, Ally, here’s your opportunity; let’s go for it.’ Made the adjustments, and Ally competes. I’ve always had a lot of confidence in her and she showed us last year she could play in big matches. Michigan was a big match for us.”

Nicklin Hames is moving towards a return as well. After rehabbing with Director of Olympic Sports Performance Brian Kmitta and practicing in a limited fashion for the first time last week, she took another step forward this week. Kelly Hunter filled in for Cook on Tuesday’s Nebraska Volleyball Show on Sports Nightly alongside Jaylen Reyes and said that they’re taking it day by day with Hames and easing her back in. 

Despite the constant lineup shuffling and multiple injuries, Nebraska stands at 14-1 overall and alone in first place in the conference standings. The Huskers are leading the country in opponent hitting percentage, and after struggling from the service line during nonconference play Nebraska is first in opponent hitting and tied for first in service aces with Wisconsin in Big Ten matches.

“I think we’re number one in aces now, we’re number one in opponent efficiency,” Cook said. “You do those two things, you’ve got a chance. You guys have heard me say that before. I also think that this team, we’ve played so many different lineups, but it’s a great group that really embraces playing with each other. They play great as a team. Nothing fazes them as far as who goes where and I’m pretty amazed by that. I’d like to have one lineup and we go from there, but we’ve had to make a lot of adjustments and and they’ve handled it really well. So I think that’s another strength of ours.” 

That strength will be put to the test again on Friday as the Huskers welcome No. 14 Penn State (14-3, 3-3 Big Ten) to Lincoln for the next installment of the programs’ storied rivalry. However, longtime and legendary head coach Russ Rose won’t be accompanying the Nittany Lions after retiring during the offseason. Katie Schumacher-Cawley took over after spending four seasons as an assistant under Rose.

“I think our fans will miss him,” Cook said. “I get more texts when he comes here about him. His coaching style, of course he has a lot of connections here still. He always sits down there and people come and visit with him, so I’ll miss that. But last year I gave him a present — I won’t tell you what it is — when they last played here. He had sent something for Lauren’s daughter, my granddaughter, and so I wanted to kind of pay him back and he really appreciated it. I’m glad that happened because I didn’t know that would be his last time coaching here, but I feel like we had some closure.”

Friday’s match will hold special meaning for one Husker in particular as Kaitlyn Hord will be facing her former team for the first time. She said she’s looking forward to seeing some old faces, but it’s also going to feel a little weird for her staring across the net.

“Especially because there’s another 23 out there this year, so that’s definitely different,” Hord said. “But it is what it is … I think it’ll be good good vibes, not not any bad blood. They’re awesome girls. So maybe I’ll give them a little smile across the net.”

Hord said she talks with some of her former teammates almost weekly, although never about volleyball. She’s watched a couple of their matches including Penn State’s win over Illinois on Sunday.

“There are so many new faces, so it’s completely different team,” Hord said. “I think that their setter is a lot more active. She’s a lefty, so I think that’s a big change and something we’ll have to consider offensively.”

Penn State features five transfers including Kashauna Williams, who originally enrolled at Nebraska in the spring of 2018 before transferring to Long Beach State, where she spent four seasons. As a super senior, she’s leading Penn State with 3.34 kills per set on .261 hitting. 

Middle blocker Allie Holland, a returner, is third in kills per set at 2.06 on .343 hitting and first in blocks at 1.44 per set. With Holland leading the way, Penn State is third in the Big Ten in blocking at 2.87 per set.

First serve on Friday night is set for 7:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

The Huskers will continue their homestand on Sunday against a Northwestern team that looks to have taken a step forward from a 12-19 season in 2021. The Wildcats are 13-5 including 2-4 in Big Ten play with a win over Minnesota and were among others receiving votes in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll.

Northwestern is second in the Big Ten in digs per set behind only Nebraska and is second in hitting percentage at .267 behind Michigan. The Wildcats are leading the Big Ten in kills and assists per set, though they’ve also surrendered the second-most aces among conference teams.

Senior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara is third in the Big Ten in kills per set at 4.05 on .268 hitting while former Husker and current team captain Megan Miller is fourth in the Big Ten with 4.14 digs per set from her libero spot.

The match on Sunday is scheduled for a 2 p.m. start on Nebraska Public Media.

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