After watching Nebraska’s first 11 matches from the bench, All-American middle blocker Lauren Stivrins made her 2021 debut on Friday and sparked the 12th-ranked Huskers to a sweep over Michigan.
“It felt amazing,” Stivrins said. “I was very nervous, my hands were shaking and my knees were about to give out, but that’s OK. It was just so fun to compete with this team and this group of girls is so special, so I loved every second of it.”
Stivrins showed no ill effects from her offseason back surgery, leading the Huskers with 11 kills on .733 hitting as Nebraska took down the Wolverines 25-14, 25-15, 25-13 in front of a packed Devaney Center crowd of 8,056.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard Devaney as loud as it was when they announced her name,” senior setter Nicklin Hames said. “I got goosebumps down my legs and that doesn’t happen very often and it was a really cool thing to see. Obviously, we love playing together, and so just having her energy out on the court, it was unreal.”
Nebraska (9-3, 3-0 Big Ten) hit a season-high .462, recording just four attack errors. Nebraska hadn’t played that clean of a match since Sept. 15, 2019, in a sweep over Missouri State.
The Huskers also dominated from the service line with nine aces and just six errors compared to one ace and five errors for the Wolverines (8-4, 1-2). Nebraska out-blocked Michigan eight to one and held the Wolverines to .198 hitting.
“We’ve struggled a little bit this year with errors,” Hames said. “We’ve been a little high-error, and I thought tonight we managed really well and I thought our outsides did an amazing job in out-of-system, taking good rips and getting them out of system. This was the best we’ve played I think overall the entire season. This is what we see every day in practice, we just haven’t seen it in a game yet, and so it was really special to see everyone getting after it today and it actually transferred to the game.”
Madi Kubik matched Stivrins with 11 kills on .455 hitting. Kayla Caffey (.583 hitting) and Ally Batenhorst (.348 hitting) added eight kills apiece. Lindsay Krause chipped in seven kills on. 375 hitting. Nicklin Hames dished out 39 assists with seven digs, five aces and a kill. Keonilei Akana led the defensive effort with 11 digs and three aces off the bench.
“That’s getting the ball to Nicklin and Nicklin doing a great job setting and those hitters making good decisions; it’s a combination of all those things,” Coach John Cook said. “We prepared really well this week and I just saw them embrace the going from good to great message, and that’s how you do it. I didn’t realize we only had four hitting years; that’s pretty good.”
The Huskers came out swinging, recording kills on their first seven attacks. Stivrins recorded her first kill of the season on a slide and then Akana followed with an ace to give the Huskers an 8-2 lead early.
“The duo is back,” Hames said about her first connection with Stvrins. “It felt great. The Stivrins Slide, we’ve missed it, we all have.”
Michigan finally dug one of Nebraska’s attacks, but the Huskers continued to play error-free volleyball and control the action, pushing their lead to seven, then eight, then nine, then 10. The lead peaked at 23-12 on a double-block from Batenhorst and Caffey and the Huskers traded sideouts from there.
Nebraska’s first attack error of the night didn’t come until the 38th rally with the Huskers leading 24-13. Nebraska hit .514 behind seven kills on nine swings from Kubik.
“We rely on her to do a lot,” Cook said. “She’s a true six-rotation outside hitter and she did everything well tonight, all the skills. You can focus on her attack was good, but she also shut down May Pertofsky at the end. She played great defense, she passed well … We need her to be real solid and consistent, and she did a really good job of it.”
Batenhorst added four kills on nine attempts while Stivrins chipped in three kills in her first action of the season.
The Huskers continued to roll in the second set, racing out to a 6-1 lead. Michigan cut the deficit to three, but the Huskers responded with a 6-0 run served by Akana to pull ahead 13-4. Nebraska pushed that lead to 16-6 with a 3-0 run capped by a Stivrins overpass smash.
The Huskers took their largest lead of the night at 20-8 before Michigan showed some signs of life, scoring six straight points to cut the deficit in half at 20-14. Caffey snapped Nebraska’s scoring drought with an emphatic kill before whiffing on her next attempt, but the Huskers closed it out with a 4-0 run from there.
Nebraska hit .419 in the second set led by Stivrins with four kills on four swings.
The Huskers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third set including a pair of Caffey Kills and never looked back. Another 3-0 run, this one including a pair of kills by Stivrins, extended the lead to six. Then Hames put together a personal 5-0 run with a setter dump kill and four straight aces to push the lead to 16-6.
“We have great servers and we see that every day in practice, and we can’t pass it either,” Cook said abut Hames’ serving run. “I don’t feel bad for Michigan because our passers can’t pass it when she’s thumping like that.”
The teams mostly traded sideouts the rest of the way as Nebraska cruised to the finish. Cook used a double-sub on match point and back-up setter Anni Evans found Batenhorst for the winner to seal it.
Nebraska hit .444 as Stivrins hammered home four more kills on six attempts.
In between sets, Nebraska honored the 1990 Final Four team and new Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame inductees Terry Pettit, Jordan Larson and Cathy Noth. Nebraska also recognized Larson for helping the United Stats win its first Olympic gold medal in volleyball this summer in Tokyo.
“That’s our theme this year is ‘Roots run deep’ and it’s honoring those people who came before us and really trying to carry on that legacy,” Hames said. “So it’s really cool when they come back into the Devaney Center.”
The Huskers will return to the Devaney Center on Sunday to close out the weekend against Michigan State.
“I told you guys on Monday we’re trying to go from good to great, and we took a step tonight,” Cook said. “Now the the challenge will be can we keep doing it? This team’s got to show some maturity and understand that this is the Big Ten and every night’s going to be a battle.”
First serve on Sunday is set for 3 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.
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.