The 2018 Nebraska volleyball team made its debut against a pair or top-20 opponents this weekend at the VERT Challenge. The Huskers lost to No. 7 Florida on opening night before bouncing back against No. 18 Oregon on Saturday, and this weekend provided a tremendous learning opportunity for the young Huskers.
The Huskers went 0-2 in the VERT Challenge to start last season. They went 2-0 in 2016 and 1-1 in 2015, the tournament’s first year. Coach John Cook said heading into the weekend he wasn’t focused on the results; he just wanted to see his team play hard and play together.
“I probably will not be so stressed out,” Cook said about what he’s learned from this tournament the past few years. “We lost the first two matches last year and won a national championship. The year before, we swept everybody, crushed them and then we lost in the [national] semifinals … This tournament doesn’t really tell you anything. I want to see us compete and play like we’ve been training, and that’s the goal this weekend.”
One thing we learned is that Nebraska’s search for Annika Albrecht’s successor at the second outside hitter spot is an ongoing process.
On Friday, Cook gave sophomore Sami Slaughter the nod and she recorded four kills and five errors on 16 swings before getting pulled in the third set for freshman Capri Davis. Davis wasn’t much more efficient, however, finishing with seven kills and seven errors on 17 swings, but she really went for it if nothing else.
On Saturday, Cook rolled with Davis and she looked all out of sorts in multiple phases of the game, putting up one kill and three errors on 13 swings before Cook went back to Slaughter. The sophomore from South Dakota finally found a bit of a rhythm against the Ducks and played errorless volleyball, finishing with four kills on 15 swings.
Cook said that position has been a complete dice roll in practice as well between those two.
“Shake it up and roll it out,” Cook said. “Whoever is swinging and aggressive is going to play. Its probably going to be a revolving door. Sami came in tonight and brought it, and that’s what we want out of that. They’ve got to come in and be aggressive and swing. I thought she did a really good job, especially rebounding from last night.”
Texas transfer Lexi Sun should factor into that battle as well, and perhaps she is the answer. The former top-ranked recruit averaged 3.27 kills per set for the Longhorns as a freshman but has yet to make her Husker debut while recovering from an injury. Cook said she is progressing but hasn’t given a timetable for her return.
The bottom line is that Nebraska needs more offensive production and efficiency. On Saturday, senior captain Mikaela Foecke looked every bit of a two-time NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player with a match-high 15 kills without an error. Her cannon of an arm was on full display both from the pin and from the back row.
However, she didn’t exactly stand out against Florida on Friday, finishing with 11 kills and 10 digs but hitting .085 thanks in part to seven errors.
“She stepped up tonight,” Cook said after Nebraska’s win over the Ducks. “She’s got to be that kind of player for us until we get these other guys going a little bit more. She’s got to be the one — Thayer Hall was for Florida [Friday] and Mikaela’s got to be that for us. Get big kills and I think our teams feeds off that when she does. Tonight, she was bringing it. As I said yesterday, it’s an adjustment for her and Kenzie because they’ve got the responsibility of being leaders and also playing, and it’s not something that just happens; it’s a skill that you have to develop.”
Nebraska needs Foecke to be a star every night, but they can’t rely on her as much as they did in the first two matches. They need balance.
Sophomore right side hitter Jazz Sweet had 21 kills in seven sets but she also committed nine errors on 54 swings. That’s a fairly average hitting percentage of .222 (she hit .273 as a freshman). The middle blockers hit .260 as a duo on 7.1 attempts per set, which is about 50 points lower and two fewer attempts per set than the Husker had last season. Now, that is an unrealistic standard to live up to but it does a good job of demonstrating the difference.
One of Kelly Hunter’s greatest strengths was her ability to get all of her hitters involved and keep the offense balanced. Nicklin Hames isn’t there yet, and the effectiveness of the hitters is certainly intertwined with the accuracy and decision-making of the setter, and Hames was understandably up and down in her first collegiate action. That being said, Cook said he was pleased with what he saw from his young floor general.
“I thought Nicklin, for a freshman in this type of tournament, did a great job of leading our team, running the show,” Cook said on Saturday. “She followed the game plan almost perfectly today. I thought her set tempo and location was better today than yesterday. We passed a little better which helps. She serves, she plays D, she made a lot of crazy plays at the net … The kid’s a baller. We’ve got to get her blocking better; with every freshman that’s one of the last things to develop. I was really pleased with how she ran our team for a freshman in her second college match.”
The progress from match one to match two was significant and Cook seems to be coming away from the first weekend in an upbeat mood.
“I just saw more of what I’ve been seeing in practice, the potential we have,” Cook said. “Of course yesterday, it was all over the place, and that’s part of the evolution of a young team. We had four freshmen out there last night; we’re trying to replace three All-Americans and a four-year starter with four freshmen. It takes time; there’s a process to go through. We’ve got to be patient and work through that process. Tonight we worked through it in a huge way in 24 hours and played much smoother and cleaner volleyball. We had three players with no hitting errors, so that’s what we can do.”
The Huskers will look to continue that process this week in practice before returning to the court for the Ameritas Players Classic.
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.