Only one nonconference match remains for the Huskers before they head into Big Ten play, and it will be Nebraska’s toughest test yet as No. 5 Louisville visits Lincoln on Saturday.
After a 6-0 start to the season, the sixth-ranked Huskers have lost back-to-back matches including Tuesday’s trip to No. 16 Stanford. The result didn’t go their way as Nebraska fell in four sets, but Cook came away encouraged by the way his team played for the most part.
“We competed really well,” Cook said. “Our issue was we gave up a big run off their serving in games one and three, and we had chances in game four to win that game. Bottom line is we’ve got to find a way to kill more balls. We did everything to stop [Caitie] Baird, she was just really good. So we played two really good left side hitters, [Dani] Drews and her, and we have to be able to match those guys. We’re just not there yet, but we’re going to get there.”
The Huskers have played against three straight ranked opponents, and in those three matches they’ve hit .177, .202 and .189. Overall this season, Nebraska is hitting .222, about 50 points lower than what the Huskers hit last season.
“It’s timing, it’s rhythm and again we got behind with Nicklin [Hames], when she was out,” Cook said about the team’s struggles with terminating. “So, every setter’s a little bit different, and it’s just a matter of getting that rhythm and timing. Just like if a quarterback was out, there’s no rhythm and timing with the receivers. So, we’re getting there and we’re doing some good things. If we don’t get a good set, we’ve got to be able to manage it better, and that’s what the young ones need to learn because in high school and club they can get away with more stuff.”
Nebraska’s middles have been effective as Kayla Caffey is leading the team at .443 while Callie Schwarzenbach is at .304, but all five pin-hitters are under .205. Cook decided to give the three freshmen a chance to start and play the whole match against the Cardinal after veterans Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik saw the majority of the playing time on the left side in the first seven matches.
“I’m trying to find out who’s going to get it done,” Cook said. “That was a great test to put those guys out there and see. I probably know a little bit more about Lexi and Madi over the last couple of years, so I thought it was good test and those guys have been training really well.”
Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause finished with 10 kills apiece in their first match starting together on the left side, but they hit .098 and .088, respectively. Whitney Lauenstein, who had been splitting time with Kruse at opposite, had five kills on .176 hitting on the right. The freshman trio is hitting a combined .127 this season, but Cook and the other players have seen them flash their considerable talent on the practice court and during live competition.
“It can be a lot,” Hames said about playing as a freshman. “I’ve got to definitely get them into better situations, but they’re doing a great job. I think it can be a lot, like Nebraska comes with a lot of expectations and a lot of pressures and I think they’re working through that great and they work every day and I see them do amazing things in the gym. I think it’s going to click, it’s going to be amazing, it’s going to be great. I think we’re right on the edge of just being great and they’re working really hard so I’m super proud of them.”
As the setter, Hames shouldered some of the responsibility for the team’s low hitting percentage and said she has to put all of her hitters in better situations. She said they want to get the middles going early to take some pressure off the outsides and she’s altered the way she plans to set the hitters at the pinto give them a bit more range.
The Huskers had to take Wednesday off after traveling back from Palo Alto on Tuesday night, but Hames said she was proud of the team’s effort in practice when they got back on the court on Thursday and said they’re looking forward to getting back in front of the Nebraska fans at the Devaney Center on Saturday.
Cook has established a pretty successful coaching tree during his time in Lincoln, and Saturday will serve as a homecoming for one of those former assistants as Dani Busboom Kelly is in her fifth season as the head coach of the Cardinal. However, Busboom Kelly might be the first former assistant to return to Lincoln who also spent her playing days there.
“I have a lot of pride in how well these guys are doing, Cook said. “For Dani to get Louisville where they’re at is a big compliment. We went into this agreement so we could play each other so it’s going to be a heck of a match. That’s what we want. And I’m just really proud of those coaches that have come through our program and do well. Former players, Dani might be the first now that I think about it.”
Louisville finished 12-18 in 2016, the season before Busboom Kelly took over. The Cardinals went 24-7 in her first season and have gone 92-29 overall since she’s taken over, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in each of her first four seasons including a run to the Regional Final in 2020.
“She’s a great recruiter,” Cook said. “She’s not afraid to get on people and push them. Dani played libero here, played setter here, and she just has a really good feel for the game. Her team plays really hard, just like she did.”
Louisville is 9-0 this season and is coming off a five-set home win over No. 8 Kentucky on Wednesday. Louisville is hitting .314 so far this season with five different hitters averaging over 2.0 kills per set. Sophomore outside hitter Anna DeBeer is leading the way with 3.25 kills per set on .322 while senior outside hitter Claire Chaussee is adding 3.04 kills per set on .247 hitting.
The Cardinals have two middle blockers hitting over .400 in fifth-year senior Anna Stevenson (2.66 kills per set on .441 hitting) and junior Amaya Tillman (2.14 kills per set on .439 hitting) while junior opposite hitter Aiko Jones has been a weapon from the service line with 20 aces in 31 sets. Defensively, Louisville is holding teams to .135 hitting and averaging 3.2 blocks per set with Tillman, Jones and Stevenson each averaging better than a block per set.
“They are a very good block and defensive team,” Cook said. “They’ve got a couple of big-time players in Aiko [Jones] and Anna Stevenson, a really dynamic middle. They’ve got about an eighth-year setter, Trent Dilfer’s daughter [Tori Dilfer]; she’s she’s really done a great job there. And they’re going to play relentless. So it’ll be a great team to play, for our players to understand how hard they’re going to have to play and how hard it’s going to be to kill the ball … They’ve got everything: physicality, play defense, they can serve and pass and they’ve got a great libero. They’re one of the hottest teams in the country right now.”
First serve on Saturday is set for 7 p.m. at the Devaney Center. Big Ten Network will televise the match.
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.