On Saturday, Nebraska fans bid farewell to a star in Mikaela Foecke, and perhaps they welcomed a new one in Lauren Stivrins.
The 6-foot-4 middle blocker introduced herself to the world with a career-high 19 kills on .615 hitting in the national championship game loss to Stanford, helping the Huskers take the Cardinal to a fifth set.
That performance capped a dominant postseason for the redshirt sophomore that saw her average 3.0 kills per set on .504 hitting in six matches in the NCAA Tournament. Through her first two postseasons, Stivrins is hitting .415, which would be a program record for career hitting percentage in the tournament.
Between some passing struggles by the back row, freshman setter Nicklin Hames adjusting to the college game and Stivrins herself adjusting to the top spot inside after playing next to Briana Holman as a freshman, Stivrins wasn’t a huge part of the Nebraska offense in the nonconference. She was solid, averaging 2.14 kills per set on .400 hitting, but Nebraska was just scratching the surface of what they had with her. It took until the 10th and final nonconference match for her to crack double figures in kills.
Stivrins’s impact slipped a bit as conference play began. She only averaged 1.75 kills per set on .348 hitting over the course of the first nine Big Ten matches. Over the last 11, however, she really came into her own and emerged as a true difference-maker, averaging 2.75 kills per set on a blistering .435 hitting.
Then she took it to a new level in the tournament, and she was particularly effective on one particular play in title match: the slide.
The slide is one of the most exciting plays in volleyball in part because it’s such a high percentage play and often produces some big-time kills.
The slide is where the middle blocker loops around behind the setter to attack the ball. It allows the middle to get a running start and put a lot of power behind her swing and it is really tough to defend for a variety of reasons.
Here’s a very simple diagram of how a typical slide looks.
This play really puts stress on the defense because it really can’t know where the ball is going until it leaves the setter’s hands. The middle will often go through the slide motion even when the ball doesn’t come her way, keeping the defenders on their toes. The blockers have to worry about the left side hitter at the pin, the setter potentially dumping the ball and then the middle looping around.
The setter holds the inside blocker momentarily — leave her uncovered and she’ll probably dump it for the kill — which makes it tough for her to get out wide enough to set up an effective double-block. That usually means the middle — who has a running start — gets a one-on-one match-up.
Here’s some highlights of the best in the world executing the slide.
The slide only works with a good pass to a setter in the right position, so it’s not something that you can just run every time. But Nebraska passed well enough against the Cardinal to run it 17 times. Fourteen of those sets went to Stivrins.
Stivrins is a terrific athlete and that combined with her height makes her difficult to block, especially with a running start and just one blocker. She put down 11 kills on the slide and did it in a variety of ways — five off the blockers, four put down cleanly on spikes and two tips on slightly off sets that found the floor anyway.
In addition to the slide, the Huskers really put the heat on the Cardinal at times with their serves and their swings, and that led to some overpasses (when a player tries to dig the ball and it flies back over the net instead of to a teammate on the same side of the net), and Stivrins crushed all six of the overpasses that came her way.
One big area when the Huskers — both Hames and the middles in particular — need to improve is quick sets to the middle. Those are called tempo zero (read Lauren West’s excellent breakdown of what that means), and Nebraska only got three kills on 11 tempo zero sets.
One question I got after Saturday’s match was “Why doesn’t Stivrins play more?” The simple answer is that there are very few six-rotation middle blockers in college volleyball, and Stivrins isn’t one of them. It takes a very specific skill set to play in the back row, and it’s hard to develop that skill set while training primarily to block and attack at the net, not to mention middles are often 6-foot-4 (like Stivrins) or taller, and it can be tough to get low and dig balls at the height. We already saw Stivrins take on a bit more responsibility as Cook allowed her to serve for most of the season, meaning she did play in the back row for half a rotation. But Nebraska doesn’t need to get her on the court more — they need to take advantage of the rallies when she is on the floor.
Stivrins played like a star over the second half of the season and she played like a superstar in the NCAA Tournament. With Mikaela Foecke out of the picture next year, that is the level at which Nebraska needs her to play at all season long. She’s shown the ability, now she needs to find the consistency.
And it all starts with the slide.
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.