“I think it’s a good test. Stanford is definitely one of the best teams in the nation and they have a lot of experience. I think you can really test to see how good you are against them and if you can battle then you know that you’re there. I think it’s going to be a great test for us just to see where we are and how much we need to improve toward the end of the season.”
That was sophomore setter and co-captain Nicklin Hames’ assessment ahead of the Huskers’ match against reigning champion Stanford. Nebraska did not pass that test, as the Cardinal won 3-1, and the last two sets weren’t particularly close.
The Huskers looked to be in a bit over their heads right out of the gate. Nebraska managed just one kill in the first 10 rallies of the match as Stanford jumped out to an 8-2 lead. During that run, freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles got into position to dig a Stanford attack, but the ball came in too hot and high and blasted off her head for a kill. That’s the kind of night it was shaping up to be.
“I just think we were hyped up, adrenaline’s going, third ball or whatever Kenzie Knuckles gets a head shot right down the line and it’s like ‘Wow, this is a different level than what we’ve been seeing,’” Coach John Cook said. “I just think it took us a while to settle into that.”
The Huskers fell behind by as much as eight in that first set as Stanford took a commanding 18-10 lead, but then the Huskers really started to play. Nebraska hit .500 the rest of the set, pulling to within two before the Cardinal took the last two points and the set, 25-21.
Nebraska carried the momentum from the second half of the set into game two. Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the Cardinal throughout the set and broke a 22-all tie with a 3-0 run to even the match heading into the intermission.
Nebraska made it a battle early in the third and fourth set, but couldn’t keep it up as Stanford pulled away and ended the match in four. The fourth set in particular was rough for the Huskers as Stanford led by as much as 11 late in the set at 23-12. Nebraska could have simply rolled over and let the Cardinal finish it easily. The Huskers didn’t. Nebraska responded with a 4-1 run with the last two points coming on emphatic kills by Hames. Stanford finished it off on the next rally, but the Huskers showed they still had plenty of fight and energy even after taking a beating.
“We were kind of down there at the end and so I just was like ‘We’re going to go out here and we’re going to compete as hard as we can,’” Hames said. “That’s all you can ask for out of yourself and your teammates and I think everyone was out there competing really, really hard and we just fell short. But I just think we were going after it no matter what the score was.”
Coming off four straight trips to the Final Four, Nebraska isn’t in the business of moral victories, and Wednesday’s loss certainly wasn’t one of those. But the Huskers did take a set off the Cardinal, something only three other teams (all of them ranked in the top 10) have done. The Cardinal swept then-No. 7 Florida in Gainesville just two weeks prior.
“I feel like in moments we were there and were playing at that level, and then in other moments we weren’t,” Hames said. “I’m glad we played in the preseason because they’re going to be the best team and they’re the top team. Knowing we even took a set off them and we can compete at that level is really awesome and I’m proud of how hard we fought and I know that we can get to that level consistently.”
Stanford lost just one starter from a year ago, middle blocker Tami Alade, and coach Kevin Hambly replaced her with a grad transfer from UCLA who earned second-team All-America honors in 2017. Two-time AVCA National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer is back for one last ride and Stanford has first-team All-Americans at setter and libero as well. That team is a juggernaut.
Nebraska isn’t that, at least not yet. The Huskers did bring back five starters from last year’s national runner-up, but the two they lost were All-Americans and Nebraska replaced them with true freshmen.
All of Nebraska’s goals are still ahead of it, but the Huskers got an idea of how much they still have to improve in order to accomplish them. The only team that has beaten Stanford this season, Minnesota, will welcome the Huskers to Minneapolis on Nov. 22. Nebraska will host Penn State, which also took a set off the Cardinal, on Nov. 2. Nebraska will see them and many other tough opponents in conference play, and they’re going to have to learn something from that Stanford match if they hope to navigate through the Big Ten gauntlet in one piece.
What does Nebraska need to take away in Cook’s mind?
“That our players understand the level that we have to be at, and it’s mainly the players that haven’t been in this environment before,” Cook said. “And then our older players understanding they have to hold everybody accountable in practice, that we’re at this level every day. This has to become a habit.”
I’ve heard greatness described as being good all the time, and that’s something Nebraska can’t quite do just yet. The five-set match against San Diego and the four-set match against Loyola Marymount showed Nebraska’s youth and inexperience even though the Huskers still found a way to win.
The good news is Nebraska was far from a finished product at any point during last year’s regular season. In fact, the Huskers lost eight matches including five in conference play. They finished in a tie for third place in the Big Ten. Even so, Nebraska found a way to outlast every team but one. A loss at this point in the season doesn’t mean much unless the team fails to learn from it.
“Our challenge is how are we going to grow from this and get better over the next two-and-a-half months?” Cook said. “That’s what we want to see, this. That’s what last year’s team did and I have confidence that we’ll continue to do that … We got there with four freshmen last year. I trust our training and how we do things and I think we’ve got some pretty tough kids. Every team’s different, but we have some players that have been there before and they’ve got to show us the way.”
Hames led Nebraska to the national championship match as a true freshman. Lauren Stivrins became an All-American as a sophomore and played her best volleyball on the biggest stage. Those are the leaders on this team, and it will be up to them to make sure the Huskers follow the same path they did last season.
This is my fifth season covering this program, and in each of the past four the team managed to find a way to make it back to the Final Four no matter who it lost from the previous season. Nebraska didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence with its performance on Wednesday, but I’m certainly not betting against them to get where they want to go.
I’ve seen enough to know better than that.
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.