Long Beach State head coach — and former Nebraska assistant — Tyler Hildebrand had a high opinion of No. 4 Nebraska heading into Saturday’s match, one the Huskers’ performance against his Beach squad only affirmed.
“I think that they’re one of the best teams that Nebraska has had in a long time,” Hildebrand said. “I believe that now still and they don’t lose anyone next year. We’re frustrated because it wasn’t a great match by us, but obviously a big piece of my heart’s here and I’m really excited for the next couple years for Nebraska.”
Nebraska (7-0) swept Long Beach State (3-4) 25-18, 25-8, 25-21 in front of a crowd of 8,589 at the Devaney Center that gave Hildebrand a warm welcome back to Lincoln for the second straight year.
Nebraska hit a season-high .393 as freshman Bergen Reilly set another balanced attack, finishing with 32 assists, eight digs, four kills and an ace. Nebraska held Long Beach to .055 hitting, recording 9.5 blocks and surrendering just one ace.
“I basically told the team after the match two things,” Coach John Cook said. “One, their preparation for this, because Long Beach is a unique team, what they’re trying to do and how they play and how fast they play …. our preparation was really good and you saw how hard it was for Long Beach to kill balls on us. And then the second thing was we started off a little shaky, we were missing serves, and I thought we really regrouped and pulled ourselves out of that. We gave them a lot of problems with our serve.”
Harper Murray finished with a match-high 10 kills on .333 hitting. Merritt Beason wasn’t far behind with nine kills on .350 hitting and eight digs, tying Reilly for match-high honors. Andi Jackson added eight kills on .667 hitting and four blocks.
After watching the first six matches from the bench, junior setter Kennedi Orr made her season debut in a serving sub role, recording five digs.
“She’s been doing a great job, so we’re trying to find ways for her to help his team win,” Cook said. “That was one role we could create for her and she made the most of it. She’s a great defensive player; she made some unreal defensive plays tonight. Setters usually don’t play defense, but she does.
“We’ve been waiting for her to get her serve squared away. We tweaked it, and I felt like she had served really well in practice this week, so I felt like it was time to see what she could do in a game. If you remember last year, she struggled with her serve, so we tweaked it and I thought she served great. She ran a ton of points.”
The early highlight of the first set was Murray chasing a ball into the baseline seats to keep it alive, leading to a Beach attack error and a 6-3 Nebraska lead. The teams traded sideouts until Cook called Orr’s number and the Huskers extended the lead to five with kills from Beason and Murray following perfect passes from Orr to Reilly.
“She works so hard day in and day out, and so I was I was super happy for her to get the opportunity to come in and I think she did a great job,” Beason said of Orr. “We talk about all the time if you’re coming in, you’re going to be a game-changer and you’re going to rip the hinges off and I think that’s exactly what she did. I’m just so happy for her and she plays like that every day in practice. So I’m happy that you guys got to see it.”
Nebraska extended its lead out to six multiple times before closing the set on a 3-0 run. Nebraska hit .462 behind six kills on eight swings from Beason. The Huskers held the Beach to seven kills and .000 hitting but also gave away six points via service errors.
Nebraska took control early in set two and dominated throughout, putting together runs of 4-0 with Lexi Rodriguez serving and 11-0 with Laney Choboy serving to build a 20-4 lead before cruising to the finish.
The 11 straight points is the longest run of the season for Nebraska, and Beason said it takes a lot of mental toughness to sustain a run like that.
“I would say that’s one thing that Laney is very good at, staying focused and staying aggressive,” Beason said. “Serving runs can get kind of monotonous at times, but I think she did a really good job of going back there and giving it her best serve every single time, every 11 points. In those long runs, you can start to lose focus and you can start to let up a little bit, but I think that’s what she did a really good job of and I think that’s why she was so successful.”
Nebraska hit .308 behind four kills on seven errorless swings from Murray and held Long Beach State to minus-.267. Nebraska had more blocks (five) than the Beach had kills (three).
Long Beach regrouped during the intermission while Cook made some lineup changes, inserting Maggie Mendelson for Bekka Allick and Ally Batenhorst for Lindsay Krause. After the Huskers led wire to wire in the first two games, the third set saw eight ties and two lead changes before the media timeout.
The Huskers took control out of the timeout with a 5-0 run featuring Orr at the service line, however. Long Beach State pulled within one twice, but Nebraska closed out the set with a 3-0 run including a match-point ace from Beason.
Batenhorst made the most of her opportunity with six kills on eight errorless swings while Mendelson added a pair of kills on three attempts. Jackson had five kills on six attempts as well. Long Beach State cut its error total down to two and hit .371, but Nebraska hit .405.
Up next for Nebraska is a trip west to take on No. 5 Stanford Tuesday night.