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No. 3 Huskers Continue Road Stand with Michigan Trip

October 05, 2022

Nebraska’s four-match road trip continues this week after a brief stop at home.

After spending four days on the east coast last week, Nebraska took Monday off then returned to the practice court on Tuesday. They’ll squeeze in another practice on Wednesday before departing for East Lansing for a rematch with Michigan State.

Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said the abbreviated practice schedule forces the players to really focus in and be intentional with every rep, because they have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time.

Nebraska will get another practice in on the road on Friday before facing Michigan on Saturday night.

Nebraska is facing Michigan State on Thursday because the Spartans are playing their matches in the Breslin Center this season, which is being used by the men’s basketball team on Friday. Coach John Cook said he’s happy to adjust their schedule if it means playing in a better arena.

This will be the second time Nebraska has faced the Spartans (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) in less than two weeks. The Cornhuskers wept Michigan State at the Devaney Center on Sept. 23 to open Big Ten play.

“We know that last game doesn’t matter,” junior setter Anni Evans said. “They’re going to make great adjustments, we’re going to make great adjustments, so it’s kind of almost a whole new game. We respect that they’re a great team, so we’ve got to expect them to come out and make some big adjustments and for them to hop on some of our tendencies. So it’s basically like playing on a whole new team.”

Michigan State is 11th in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .220 and sixth in opponent hitting at .176. The Spartans have four players averaging better than 2.0 kills per set, though they’ve been without middle blocker Rebecka Poljan since early September. 

The Wolverines climbed into the top 25 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll, breaking in at No. 24 after a 12-2 start to the season including 3-1 in Big Ten play. Michigan is leading the Big Ten (and is 14th nationally) in hitting percentage at .287 betide the dynamic duo of junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik and senior middle blocker Jess Robinson.

“They’re running what’s called a 5-2 system,” Cook said. “So they have a back-row setter and a front-row setter. Jess Mruzik was the MVP of the World Championships. Robinson, I don’t know, seems like she has been there forever. Their right side [May Pertofsky] has been there forever. These guys have a veteran team, and they pass well. They’re always a great hitting team.”

Mruzik is averaging 3.80 kills per set on .253 hitting while Robinson is leading the conference in hitting at .498 on 2.63 kills per set. Junior libero is leading the conference in aces per set at 0.55 while averaging 3.90 digs per set. 

Saturday’s match will pit the best offense in the Big Ten against the best defense in the country, and Cook said his players are fired up by the opportunity.

“I think the team as a whole finds joy in when we get to face really good offensive teams because it does put our defense to a test,” Rodriguez said. “So I think we’re really excited.”

Nebraska is holding opponents to .118 hitting this season. Their digs average is down a bit from last season, but the Huskers are still leading the conference with 15.29 per set. The change in systems this season from a 5-1 to a 6-2 has allowed the team to stay big at the net, and while we don’t see three defensive specialists playing together in the back row like we did last season, it’s allowed Nebraska to keep three big blockers in the front row at all times. Nebraska is fifth in the conference with 2.62 blocks per set.

“I think it’s something we always take pride in is our defense, whether that is blocking or just digging or anything like that,” Rodriguez said. “In practices we always work on it and it’s something that I think we all enjoy and I think it’s something Nebraska volleyball really thrives in is their defense. I think this year is no different. I know our middles this year are amazing defensively and our block is more defensive this year and our defense isn’t as many DSes back there, but I think it’s the same mentality that we’re gonna get everything up.”

While Cook is pleased with where his team is at defensively, his attention is focused squarely on the offense this point.

“If we’re number one, we’re doing something right,” Cook said. “We prepare hard … We were a great defensive team last year. We’ve got to get better on offense. We’ve got to hit better, and that’s our thing right now. So these guys understand serving, block and defense; they understand it, they know how important it is and they really embrace it. But we’ve got to get better offensively. That’s our challenge right now.”

After hitting a season-high .405 against Rutgers on Friday last week, Nebraska hit a season-low .099 against Maryland. Cook mentioned after the match on Sunday that the setters’ inconsistency played a big part in the offensive struggles.

“I just think we were missing some balls we don’t usually miss,” Evans said. “It was just kind of on our side of the court. Different gym, Sunday afternoon game, but we know what we need to do on our side of the net. So it’s really on our side and we rep it out every day in practice.”

Evans said Maryland’s big block exposed some weaknesses in Nebraska’s attack and served as a valuable learning experience as the Huskers head deeper into Big Ten play.

In addition to a locked-in defensive effort, the Huskers continuing their hot serving run would be another way to slow down Michigan’s high-powered attack. The Huskers served up 19 aces with with 13 errors in seven sets last week after totaling 20 aces and 77 errors in the previous 26 sets.

“I think we took a huge step,” Rodriguez said. “Against Rutgers, I think we had like 12 aces, and then Maryland I thought was one of our best serving games we’ve had all year. It’s always been a focus of ours this year, but I think now that the Big Ten is starting and we’re finally getting a little smoother and getting the hang of things and the freshmen are getting kind of more comfortable out there, I think everyone’s starting to get more comfortable with just really being aggressive with their serves.”

Cook said he wasn’t sure why the Huskers served so well, but he’s hoping to see them carry that confidence over into this week’s matches.

First serve from East Lansing is set for 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network Thursday. Saturday’s match in Ann Arbor is set to begin a 6 p.m. on Big Ten Plus.

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