Omaha forced No. 4 Nebraska to go the distance, but the Huskers pulled away late to open the Ameritas Players Challenge with a five-set win over the Mavericks on Friday.
It went five sets, but none of the games were close as Nebraska won 16-25, 25-14, 16-25, 25-13, 15-7 in a match that started an hour after its scheduled start time thanks to Georgia and Arizona State going five in the first match of the tournament at the Devaney Center. Nebraska out-hit Omaha .191 to .083.
Coach John Cook planned to get a lot of players time on the court heading into the match, but plans changed when the Huskers came out flat and Omaha hit the Huskers in the mouth. Cook went back to his veterans to carry them home.
“The Mavericks played great,” Cook said. “They took it to us, so it was a well-deserved five-game match and I just think we wore them down a little bit at the end. I wanted to try to play a couple different lineups to keep people fresh, but we had to abandon that after the first game. Hats off to UNO and their staff, and their players played really hard and did a very good job running their system. They were the aggressors most of the day.”
One of those veterans was senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey, who did not play in the first three sets but dominated at the net in the last two. She put down six kills on 10 swings and had seven block assists in games four and five.
“She brought a lot of energy and then offensively, obviously, she’s a huge weapon,” senior setter Nicklin Hames said. “So that opened up some things for us to set her in transition and for her to get some kills and she also had some great block touches. Her personality and her energy brought a lot to our team and we really needed that in that moment.”
Junior outside hitter Madi Kubik led the Nebraska attack with a season-high 16 kills on a season-best .394 hitting. She was one of just two Huskers who finished above .215 hitting.
Freshman outside hitter Lindsay Krause recorded her first double-double with 12 kills and 10 blocks (one solo). Seven of those blocks came in the final two sets where Nebraska recorded 10 of its 15 total blocks in the match.
“Oh my gosh, amazing,” Caffey said about Krause’s blocking. “Those blocks were insane. She literally took it to a whole other level that I haven’t even seen from her so it was just really cool to see her play like that and just play really free.”
Hames made her season debut after missing last weekend’s matches with an ankle injury. She finished with 40 assists and 13 digs but also had three service errors, two ball-handling errors and one attack error.
“I thought she was a little shaky but as the match went on she got better and better,” Cook said. “You can tell, she missed her first two serves in the net; I’ve never seen that from her, but that’s just not sure and her confidence may not be right there. She hasn’t played in a couple of weeks so that just kind of set the tone for a first game. But she pulled herself out; she’s a competitor.”
Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun added 10 kills, nine digs and two aces. Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez led everyone with 24 digs and chipped in with an ace.
Cook mixed up his starting lineup, giving freshman Ally Batenhorst the start in her first match after holding her out with a minor injury last weekend. Sophomore Kalynn Meyer made her first start at middle blocker next to Callie Schwarzenbach. Hames also started at setter.
Kubik got the party started with an ace, but the Mavericks controlled the action the rest of the way as they took the lead with an 8-1 run. Cook snapped the run with a successful challenge and the Huskers followed it with back-to-back double-blocks by Meyer and Krause to cut the deficit to 8-5.
That’s as close as the Huskers would get, however, as the Mavericks stretched the lead out to nine at 20-11 with an 8-2 run and the teams traded sideouts most of the way from there.
The Huskers hit just .069 compared to Omaha’s .147. The Mavericks also outscored Nebraska 7-2 in service points as the Mavericks had three aces and two errors while the Huskers had four errors without an ace.
Nebraska ran a 6-2 in the first set with Anni Evans and Whitney Lauenstein rotating in for Hames and Krause, but the Huskers struggled to find a rhythm regardless of the lineup. Sun checked in for the final six rallies but did not record a stat in the first set.
Sun started the second set in place of Batenhorst. Omaha opened the game with a 3-0 run but the Huskers settled in from there. Nebraska used a 10-3 stretch including a 4-0 run served by Kubik to pull ahead 13-8.
Sun served a 4-0 run that put the Huskers up 4-0, then Kenzie Knuckles served a 4-0 run of her own. After an Omaha kill, Kubik sealed the win with a set-point kill, her seventh of the set.
Nebraska hit .270 in the second set and held the Mavericks to .024. Hames set the whole match as Nebraska switched back to a 5-1.
“We worked on a 6-2, so our plan was to run that one match, and it would save Nicklin a little bit,” Cook said. “That was kind of the plan, but it wasn’t going very well, we were not in rhythm at all and UNO made that happen. So I just thought our only chance is to try to get a rhythm going and go to a 5-1.”
After trading blows early in set three, Omaha hit Nebraska with a 6-0 run featuring Millard West grad Jaiden Centeno at the service line to pull ahead 9-4. The Mavericks were content to trade sideouts from there as the Huskers managed to string together points just once the rest of the way. Omaha closed the set on a 5-0 run.
Omaha out-hit Nebraska .297 to .050. Kubik had three more kills to give her 13 through three sets on .407 hitting. The rest of the Huskers combined had 19 kills on .038 hitting.
Cook called Caffey’s number to start the fourth set and she made an immediate impact, teaming up with Krause for a pair of blocks that sandwiched a Krause kill during a 3-0 start. After a pair of Omaha kills, Nebraska stretched the lead to six with a 5-0 run capped by a Sun ace.
Nebraska closed the gap to three at 11-8 with a pair of kills by Rachel Fairbanks, but the Huskers answered with a 6-0 run featuring Knuckles at the service line and Nebraska cruised to the 12-point win, sending the match to a game five.
Krause led the Huskers with five kills and four blocks while Caffey added four blocks and two kills. Nebraska had six blocks in the set and held the Mavericks to .000 hitting. The Huskers hit .290.
Nebraska used a 4-0 run early in set five to pull ahead 6-2 and the Huskers maintained the lead throughout.
“We wanted to come out with a lot of energy to start, trying to get the crowd going because the crowd is always in our favor and it’s hard to play in that environment, especially in pressure situations,” Hames said. “Then we wanted to really have a lot of energy, just out-energize the other team. We had we had to go for it. We had to take big rips in situations and we had to really go for it on our serves because if we got it out of system, we felt like we were in the best situation that way. So I felt like we really went for it in the first set and I don’t think we did that the entire night, but I’m really proud of how we played in the fifth set.”
Another 4-0 run consisting of two Caffey kills and two double-blocks from Caffey and Krause gave the Huskers match point, and after a Maverick kill Caffey closed it out with another kill of her own.
Nebraska hit .400 in game five while holding Omaha to minus-.150.
The Huskers won’t have much time to dwell on their performance as they’re set to play against Georgia on Friday night. First serve is scheduled for 6 p.m., or 30 minutes after the conclusion of Omaha and Arizona State’s match. Big Ten Network will televise the match.
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.