Nebraska earned its first win over a ranked opponent on Wednesday night in impressive fashion, sweeping No. 19 Creighton thanks to a dominant defensive effort.
“We scouted really well and we had a game plan and so I think it was really awesome that we went out there and executed it,” freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez told Hail Varsity. “Everyone was all in to making adjustments and just following scouting so it went really well.”
Coach John Cook said on the Husker Volleyball Show on Thursday’s edition of Sports Nightly that he didn’t really see that kind of performance coming, but having a couple of days in practice to focus on one opponent rather than preparing for multiple teams likely played a big part in how confident the Husker were going in and how freely they played on Wednesday night.
“I just think we really attacked in everything that we did,” Cook said. “We served tough, we attacked offensively, we attacked with our block and defense. So we played really aggressive and you could see Creighton kind of got frustrated a little bit. That’s how you win matches in the Big Ten, you better attack in everything that you’re doing or you’re going to get it handed to you.
“I just think we haven’t been in a good zone up until last night where they felt confident to do that, and so I kind of saw them take a step forward last night and emerged a little bit for how they want to play and getting a feel for that and getting in a better rhythm.”
Though the match itself didn’t quite live up to the hype, the atmosphere did with 11,279 fans filling CHI Health Center Omaha.
“It was a celebration of volleyball in the state,” Cook said. “There were a lot of Nebraska kids out there on the court on both teams and probably a lot of high school girls were there watching. To have 11,000 on Wednesday night, Fox Sports, it’s pretty epic for volleyball.”
The Huskers will have to move on quickly, though, with another ranked opponent visiting Lincoln on Friday. The Huskers will host No. 20 Utah on Saturday night at 7:30. The Utes are 6-0 with wins over San Diego (No. 22 at the time, now No. 25) and Hawaii and are hitting .290 as a team led by senior outside hitter Dani Drews (4.9 kills per set on .336 hitting) with nine aces.
“She’s a national player of the year candidate,” Cook said. “I’ve watched her for four years. She’s a super senior, we actually played in Hawaii against her in beach when she was a freshman. She’s just fun to watch. She’s left-handed, she does everything. Utah, I think last time they were here we had a five-game war with them in the NCAA Tournament, and they’re a very strong program and very well coached.
“So this is going to be a fun match. It’s fun to play when you get to play against great players like Dani, and she competes. As a fan, I’m excited to see her come and play in Devaney.”
Drews is coming off an 18-kill, zero-error, 20-dig performance in a sweep against Weber State. Rodriguez said the key to defending a player of her caliber is to stay level-headed no matter what happens.
“I think just knowing that she’s going to get her good kills and she’s going to get some really good swings, but that it’s just next play,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t worry about a really good hit that she got and just have to worry about what you can do to slow her down or to make her not get five kills a set and maybe just slow that down a little bit.”
The Huskers will have to lock in on the scouting report as well as they did against Creighton, but one Husker in particular is already familiar with some of the Utes.
“I’m really close to a lot of the girls on the Utah team so I’m really excited to see them,” sophomore Keonilei Akana said. “But starting today we got to scout them for a little bit and so we even had a little drill where we were just picturing how they would play against us. I think [Friday] we’re really going go deep into it on their game play and just how they are as a team.”
Akana said the Huskers will have to carry over the level of energy and defensive intensity they had on Wednesday night in order to have success against Drews.
Cook continues to experiment with his lineup and give multiple players a chance to see the floor. He’s hoping to have that locked down by the start of conference play, but until then serving and passing will play a big part in who starts on Saturday.
“We’ll see how practice goes tomorrow and see who’s who’s got the eye of the tiger,” Cook said. “Again, a lot of the decisions I make are who our best servers are because you just saw how important serving is and if you don’t serve tough, I don’t care how good at block and defense we are, you’re going to have a hard time stopping people. So serving is one of the great ways to give our team an advantage so we’ve got to have six great servers out there.”
Fans can stream the match on BTN+.
Other Notes from Sports Nightly
>> Cook addressed the status of senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, saying he’s still not sure when she’ll be ready to return but that she is working hard to get there.
“I just know her workload is tremendous right now,” Cook said. “Everything’s still is controlled, but we’re getting more and more each day. We started pushing the more randomness of playing volleyball. But physically, she’s doing really well. I think she’s in three-a-days right now with rehab, with working out and then coming in the gym. So we’re pretty encouraged.
“I made the comment today, she looks like a caged animal, that she’s just wants to play and turn it loose so bad. That’s what it feels like being around her. So it’s hard to say but she’s making really good progress. That’s the best way I can put it.”
>> Cook said he’s been talking with his staff about getting radar guns in practice to gauge the speed of the Huskers’ serves. In addition to just being curious, he’d like to have the numbers to be able to provide the team with feedback.
>> Cook offered some insight into how he fills his nonconference schedule year after year. Cook said he likes including some big matchups to test the Huskers early on. This year, that includes a trip to Stanford and a home match against Louisville, two top-15 teams. Those matches are part of a multi-year event that also includes Kentucky and will close out the nonconference slate next week. In the past, the Huskers played in the VERT Challenge with Texas, Baylor and Florida.
Cook likes filling a lot of their home matches with other teams from the surrounding area, such as Creighton, Omaha, Kansas State, Iowa State, South Dakota and others.
When it comes to road matches, Cook said he tries to schedule trips near the hometowns of his players that come from outside the region. The Huskers will head to Louisville next year, less than a four-hour drive from Nicklin Hames’ hometown of Maryville, Tennessee. The Huskers make an annual trip to Hawaii during the beach season, which will be a homecoming for Akana. The Huskers have gone to San Diego for Lexi Sun and play in Arizona during the beach season for Stivrins. That’s something Cook uses while recruiting.
“We just had a huge recruit in last week and she’s in a place that we don’t go in the Big Ten, so I promised her we would go back there and play a couple times in her hometown,” Cook said. “Because she lives in kind of a, I’m not going to say where, but it’s not an easy place to get to but there’s a college there. So we promised her we’d go back or somewhere close by to play just so her family and fiends can come and watch.”
Cook fills in the rest of the road gaps in the schedule with places he wants to go or hasn’t been. He said he’s hoping to take the team to the Naval Academy or West Point in the next couple of years. He’s also talked with athletic director Trev Alberts about a potential match in Ireland, taking his cue from the football team’s game against Northwestern scheduled to take place in Dublin next season.
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.