No. 9 Nebraska’s won nine straight matches to open Big Ten play, but just one of the teams they beat — Penn State — was ranked. The schedule ramps up significantly starting this weekend as the Huskers will face four top-10 teams in their next five matches.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” junior Kenzie Knuckles said. “We’ve been practicing really well and just trusting our training. I would say we’re playing the best that we have been all season right now so I think we’re pretty confident and ready to play.”
The last time the Huskers faced a stretch like this was the last four matches of the nonconference, and the Huskers lost three of those matches. Senior setter Nicklin Hames said the team is much more prepared this time around.
“I think, then, it was kind of like a shock a little bit, just trying to get used to our system,” Hames said. “I think we’re in a really good groove now defense-wise, offense-wise and it just feels like we’re finally starting to get it together, and that’s why I’m excited that now we get to play the top-10 teams when we feel like we’re hitting our stride.”
This upcoming stretch provides evidence for Coach John Cook’s claim that winning the Big Ten is even harder than winning a national championship. To win the Big Ten, a team has to be good for 10 straight weeks and 20 matches, while it would only need to play six great matches to win the NCAA Championship. During a typical tournament run, Nebraska might only have to play two or three top-10 opponents to win the whole thing, but again, Nebraska will face four of them in the next couple of weeks.
A big part of Nebraska getting to this point unscathed in conference play is the team’s depth. Lauren Stivrins didn’t return to the court until the second week of the Big Ten and Kayla Caffey missed three matches with an illness. Enter Callie Schwarzenbach, who has extensive starting experience and is leading the team in blocks despite only being a part-time starter. Freshman Ally Batenhorst has also struggled at times at the L2 spot, and Cook has turned to veteran Lexi Sun at times to bring a spark off the bench. Hames called that depth “super important.”
“People get sick, things happen, injuries happen and before I don’t think we could have recovered from that because we didn’t really have anyone else to put in,” Hames said. “But now we have great people on the bench who can come in and play. I think everyone on the bench could come in and play which I think is really special and it really pushes us in practice as well.”
Sun and Schwarzenbach had 150 combined starts for the Huskers heading into this season, yet they’ve bought into their new roles off the bench and have responded when Cook has called their number.
“I think it’s just an understanding of their roles and their love for this program and this team,” Hames said. “I think everyone wants the best for each other and it really shows when they can come in and perform like that.”
Nebraska should be at full strength on Saturday, however, as they begin the tough stretch at the Devaney Center against No. 7 Purdue (14-4, 6-3 Big Ten), a team the Huskers haven’t played since the 2019 season. Purdue wasn’t on Nebraska’s reduced schedule for the 2020-21 season. The teams split their meetings in 2019 as the Boilermakers, ranked 20th at the time, beat the Huskers in five sets in West Lafayette.
“It is weird and Purdue is one of those teams, they’re obviously really good this year, but in the past they’ve been one of those teams that could really get you on a night if you weren’t playing your best,” Hames said. “I think that’s what happened two years ago. They’re really good so we’re excited to play them, but it is weird that we haven’t played in two years.”
Purdue used to be the team that jumped up and took down higher-ranked teams, but this week, the Boilermakers were the ones to experience an upset. Behind a monster performance from Sarah Franklin, unranked Michigan State took down Purdue in five sets on Wednesday. Earlier in the season, Maryland handed then-No. 2 Wisconsin its first (and only) loss as well. Even Iowa pushed the Huskers on Wednesday despite Nebraska still winning in straight sets.
“Every match in the Big Ten is a good match and you have to be prepared,” Hames said. “Like Maryland and Michigan State, if those teams get going they’re really hard to beat. So it just shows that you have to be ready every night. Like last night, Iowa gave us a great run, they played great. You just have to be ready on every night.”
The Huskers will have to be ready for a Boilermakers team that is sixth in the Big Ten in opponent hitting (.182), fifth in digs (15.09 per set) and third in blocks (2.66 per set). Offensively, Purdue is fourth in hitting (.267).
“They’re a scrappy team, they’re a good team and there are going to be long rallies and stuff so I think we’re mentally preparing for that … The plays will be long and they’re not just offensive, they have really good defenders as well, so just being ready to play knowing that we’re not going to get a first ball kill all the time,” Knuckles said.
Fifth-year senior Caitlyn Newton is leading Purdue with 3.7 kills per set own .234 hitting while fellow outside hitter Grace Cleveland is adding 3.31 kills per set on .292 hitting. The Boilermakers have three players averaging better than one block per set as well in middle blockers Taylor Trammell (1.37) and Jael Johnson (1.18) plus Cleveland (1.12). However, Johnson missed Purdue’s last five matches. Fifth-year senior Jena Otec leads the defensive effort with 4.27 digs per set.
“We’re going to have to really have a great offense against them, move it around, use our middles,” Hames said. “They also have a great offense and they’re going to really stress our block, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
First serve on Saturday is set for 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.