After two long matches on Friday, No. 4 Nebraska made short work of Arizona State on Saturday, sweeping the Sun Devils to finish 3-0 at the Ameritas Players Challenge.
The Huskers (5-0) won 25-20, 25-12, 25-22 in front of an announced crowd of 8,253 at the Devaney Center.
Tournament MVP Nicklin Hames guided the Huskers to their most efficient offensive performance of the young season as they hit .350 for the match. Hames finished with 38 assists, 11 digs, two blocks and an ace.
“She was she was flowing really good tonight and our passing and ball-handling was really good to get help her get in that,” Coach John Cook said about Hames, who worked herself into a rhythm after missing last week’s matches with an ankle injury. “She was moving around really well. That’s the rhythm, it’s the tempo, it’s the timing. Hitters know when to go. You didn’t see our hitters, slowing down, they were really driving the ball and that’s all tempo and rhythm. It just takes time to get that.”
Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez and senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey joined Hames on the all-tournament team, as did Omaha’s Sadie Limback and Sami Clarkson, Georgia’s Amber Stivrins and Kacie Evans and Arizona State’s Iman Isanovic. Rodriguez averaged 4.0 digs per set with three aces in the tournament while Caffey added 2.4 kills and 1.6 blocks per set while hitting .405 in nine sets.
After struggling against Georgia on Friday night, senior outside hitter Lexi Sun bounced back in a big way with 14 kills on .364 hitting and three blocks (two solo).
“Lexi wasn’t feeling great last night, and I was thinking about not playing her this match.,” Cook said. “But she looked pretty perky in practice today and said she felt better, and I just I had a feeling she would be on a mission tonight after last night, and she was. She served great, passed great, she hit pretty good.”
Following a strong performance off the bench on Friday night, freshman Whitney Lauenstein got the start at opposite hitter and stepped her game up even more with 11 kills on .529 hitting. After the match, fellow Waverly alumna Anni Evans presented her with the EDMF belt. After recording one kill and one error against Omaha, Lauenstein came on strong to post 19 kills on .484 hitting in the other two matches.
“She’s just a very fast athlete,” Cook said. “I’ve really never coached anybody like her, how she moves and how she hits. She’s very fast and fluid and she flies, she gets up there. She’s got a really fast arm, so it’s hard to block her. The only time you can really get her is if she brings it down. But when she gets up there and gets big, she’s going to go over the block and she hits it hard. She’s got a lot of heat on that.”
Ally Batenhorst added nine kills on .333 hitting. Rodriguez led the defensive effort with a match-high 12 digs while sophomore Keonilei Akana tied Hames with 11 digs. Nebraska held Arizona State (3-3) to .127. Isanovic, who totaled 50 kills in two five-set matches on Friday, tied Sun with 14 kills but did so on .159 hitting.
Arizona State made a push early, stringing together three straight points to pull ahead 8-6. The Huskers responded with a 4-0 run, however, including Batenhorst’s first career kill. She had three errors on nine swings in her debut on Friday.
“I wanted to give her a shot,” Cook said. “She would have probably started last weekend if she was able to play. She had a great Red-White, she was great in training. Anyway, I felt like I needed to give her another shot because when she started off yesterday against UNO and Nicklin was in there. Nicklin gave her some really tough sets, so she just never really had a chance to get going. These guys need to know we believe in them, and so I gave her another shot and she really took advantage of it. So it was really good to see. You can see she creates a lot of problems up there.”
Nebraska continued to stretch out the lead from there, pulling ahead 15-10. After two straight Arizona State points, Sun took over, recording four kills on the next five rallies to push Nebraska’s lead to 19-13. The Sun Devils cut the deficit to three at 21-18 but could get no closer. Nebraska scored three straight to earn set point and finished off the set on their third try with a Batenhorst kill.
Nebraska hit .414 in the first set behind six kills on nine attempts from Sun. Batenhorst added four kills on .375 hitting. Arizona hit .276.
Nebraska picked it up even more in the second set, racing out to an 8-1 lead. Arizona State managed to put together three straight points bu the Huskers answered with an 8-0 run as Arizona State recorded one kill (and six errors) on its first 23 attacks.
The Huskers continued to control the action, pushing the lead to 14. The Sun Devils saved a couple of set points before Caffey finished it off with her fourth kill of the night.
Nebraska out-hit Arizona State .371 to minus-.026 as the Huskers notched five blocks. Lauenstein paced the Huskers with five kills on seven swings.
“It’s just very stable and controlled, everyone’s playing very calm and no one’s really freaking out or anything,” Rodriguez said about Nebraska’s extended runs. “So that’s really good. We’re just focusing on the little things and just taking big swings and I think that’s what really worked for us.”
The Sun Devils seemed to regroup during the intermission and came out swinging as they scored the first three points of the third set. Nebraska railed to tie it at 8-8, 9-9 and 11-11 but couldn’t quite get over the hump as the Sun Devils pushed the lead back to three three more times.
Nebraska tied it up again at 17-17, 18-18, 19-19 and 20-20 as the freshmen continued to take big swings. Sun finally gave the huskers their first lead of the set at 21-20 with her 11th kill then followed it up with a solo block. After an Arizona State timeout, Knuckles pushed the run to 4-0 with an ace.
“I think that we kind of just had a few plays where there was miscommunication and stuff like that, which didn’t really happen in the first and second set,” Rodriguez said. “And then towards the end I know Kenzie came in and went on a huge serving run, so I think that was kind of like a turning point for energy.”
The Huskers traded sideouts the rest of the way with Sun recording the last two kills for Nebraska including one one match point. The Huskers hit .282 and held the Sun Devils to .176 in the final set.
“We were down by I think three or four points, and we kind of chiseled our way back, and then I think they called a timeout, it was tied 19-19. Nicklin told them ‘This is where we’ve got to go now. We’ve got to try to get two points ahead.’ And I think we did that at 22-20, and that puts a lot of pressure, especially our crowd got into it and put a lot of pressure on them. Lexi had a couple big kills, we played great defense … and so we just played Husker volleyball.
“You’ve got to turn it up after 20. You have to play great after 20 to beat good teams.”
Nebraska will have a few days to prepare for their first mid-week match of the season as the Huskers head to Omaha to take on Creighton at the CHI Health Center on Wednesday. The Bluejays swept No. 3 Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday morning and are off to a 6-0 start this season.
“We’ve got to keep pushing that envelope and Creighton will bring out the best in us,” Cook said. “This is going to be an exciting match. Creighton just raised the ante. So it will be fun. I think our players are going to be really fired up.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.