Kenzie Maloney, a senior co-captain, was in no mood to mince words after Nebraska’s four-set loss to No. 5 Minnesota on Saturday night, just the Huskers’ second loss of the season and first since the season-opener.
“They out-served and passed us tonight and that’s why we win games most of the time, so that was really lacking tonight,” Maloney said. “The second thing I would say is just flat-out effort. They out-played us, they out-willed us, they were getting everything off the floor and I felt like, at times, we weren’t really trying as hard as we could have. Coaches made it clear going into next week of practice we’re going to definitely be working on that.”
Heading into the match, the Huskers led the nation in opponent hitting percentage at .110 and they led the Big Ten in aces per set at 1.93. On Saturday, the Gophers hit .280 — a season-high for Nebraska opponents — and the Huskers mustered just one ace in four sets.
The Gophers are one of the least aggressive teams from the service line in the conference, and they were even below their 1.3 average with four aces in four sets, yet the Huskers couldn’t pass against them. Foecke, who has been a rock for the Huskers in the back row as well as at the pin, struggled to handle Minnesota's pressure and Cook even subbed her out in the third set with the Huskers trailing 21-11, letting freshman Capri Davis close out the set.
Nebraska has served many teams into submission, reeling off long scoring runs in blowout sets, but on Saturday, the Huskers learned what it felt like to be on the other end of that kind of exchange. At one point in the third set, the Gophers scored 11 straight points.
“Tonight, we got punched and we didn’t respond very well,” Coach John Cook said. “We’re going to have to learn how to respond when teams are as physical as us and are serving and passing at the level that we’re at, and we didn’t respond very well. You get beat 25-14 in game three? That’s not responding. It starts with a mindset and every rep in practice and every rep in the match and you can’t take plays off and you can’t blow assignments and you can’t make three errors in a row. We had the momentum and we serve out, we serve into the net, they call timeout and we serve out. Those things against good teams, it’s a two- or three-point turnaround, so our team has to learn to be tougher in those spots.”
Nebraska simply didn’t look like Nebraska on Saturday. But Minnesota did, according to middle blocker Lauren Stivrins who joined Maloney at the table for the post-match press conference.
“I know we talk a lot about Nebraska volleyball, but we really just didn’t come out here and play it today,” Stivrins said. “It looked like Minnesota was playing Nebraska volleyball, which is something we need to work on. A lot of these freshmen don’t really understand what that is, they don’t understand how hard we need to hustle every single play. You can’t just take plays off because if you take plays off in practice you’re going to take them off in the game. I think it’s on Kenzie, Mikaela and myself as the upperclassmen to kind of show these girls what it takes.”
With Nebraska’s 14-1 start that included wins over four top-20 teams, it was easy to forget just how young this team is. Stivrins, a redshirt sophomore with just a season-and-a-half of starts under her belt, sees herself as a veteran who needs to help the team’s seniors — Foecke and Maloney — carry the burden of leadership. Nine players took the court for the Huskers against Minnesota, and six of them were freshmen or true sophomores.
Youth isn’t an excuse, however. Minnesota isn’t that much older than Nebraska with just two juniors and one senior among the 10 Gophers who took the court on Saturday night.
Nebraska has shown it has everything it needs to contend for a national championship, but Saturday’s disappointment also showed it has a long way to go. Foecke and Maloney have been where the Huskers are trying to get — twice — and Maloney knows what it will take to get there again.
“I think just lighting a fire under everyone’s… I don’t know,” Maloney said. “I just think letting them know how important it is to have that effort because that’s what wins you matches. Sometimes it doesn’t come down to technique, it comes down to how much you care about winning and how much you want to get the ball off the court and that effort and that attitude is what wins games, so just making that clear to the team.”
The Huskers have the talent to compete with anyone, but to go all the way they have to find consistency. Even within Nebraska’s 14-match winning streak, the Huskers’ passing in particular was shaky at times as they worked in a few new back-row contributors and Nebraska occasionally struggled to complete sweeps (just seven in 16 matches) after getting off to great starts.
Consistent production in matches starts with consistent effort and attention to detail in practice, and based on Saturday’s press conference, you can probably count on Maloney and the other team leaders setting a few fires in practice on Monday.
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.