From hitting to blocking, numbers were on Nebraska’s side
LINCOLN — With more than 100 rallies played in each match, volleyball is a sport ruled by statistics. The sample sizes are large, which means the numbers can become predictive.
So when Michigan hit .379 in the first set of Saturday’s match against Nebraska, blowing out the Huskers 25-15, John Cook wasn’t ready to panic.
“I just think Michigan came out playing really well, and I think we were a little flat,” the NU coach said Monday. “We had a really late night of travel and it just took us a while. Michigan had to come down a little bit, and we had to raise our level a little bit. It was more taking their first big swing and hanging in there, then they came down to Earth a little bit.
“In statistics class, it’s called regression to the mean.”
He was right. Over the final three sets, Nebraska looked more like the team that boasted the Big Ten’s lowest opponent hitting percentage. Michigan, which is hitting .205 in conference matches, hit .171 over the final three sets.
The win in Ann Arbor, the Huskers’ fourth in a row, came after No. 6 Nebraska (20-6, 11-5 Big Ten) swung another concerning trend closer to the statistical middle. NU snagged the last two sets against the Wolverines by the minimum two-point margin, winning the third 28-26 and the fourth 26-24.
In Nebraska’s five losses to ranked teams in October, the Huskers lost five of seven sets decided by three points or fewer. Overall this year, Nebraska is 12-13 in sets played within that margin after going 19-11 in them last season.
“We won two really close, tight games,” Cook said about the Michigan match. “We had to will them out.”
It helped to have an outlier like Mikaela Foecke. The senior outside hitter earned Big Ten player of the week honors on Monday after putting down a match-high 22 kills and hitting .465 against the Wolverines.
Another factor in NU’s comeback was the Huskers’ other statistical constants this season, block and defense. Nebraska’s 2.9 blocks per set in Big Ten matches leads the league by a large margin, and NU’s .145 opponent attack percentage in conference play is more than 30 percentage points better than the league’s No. 2 team, Penn State.
The Huskers put up 13 blocks against Michigan, with the final one coming on match point when Jazz Sweet and Callie Schwarzenbach stuffed Michigan freshman Paige Jones, who had sliced up Nebraska for 17 kills.
Nebraska’s defensive acumen has kept the team in matches despite a significant offensive drop-off. The Huskers are hitting .250 this year, 32 percentage points lower than last year’s club that was run by a fifth-year All-America setter and featured two other senior attackers.
Cook said he offered the team the chance to take an extra day of rest on Monday, but Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, the team’s captains, refused. With a match at No. 12 Purdue on Friday, the Huskers can’t waste a day to try to improve.
Whether Nebraska can nudge its hitting average up a few points could determine how deep in the NCAA tournament the Huskers will travel.
NU seeks consistency on pins
The Michigan match was a showcase of how two of Nebraska’s starting attackers are traveling in opposite directions.
Outside hitter Lexi Sun rebounded from a slow start — two kills on her first 14 attacks — to finish with 17 kills. The Texas transfer continues to have a few more errors than Cook would like — she had eight on Saturday and hit .176 — but has a recent trend of closing matches strong.
Sun had six kills in the clinching fourth set at Michigan and put down six kills on nine swings in the fifth set of the Huskers’ win against Penn State on Nov. 2.
“She’s definitely learning how to be a great player in big moments even though she may struggle at times,” Cook said. “But Mikaela struggles in early games in matches as well. Mikaela got aced three times, I think, versus Michigan. Those guys are learning to work through that. We call it ‘next-point mentality.’ ”
But the search to find Sweet’s shot continues. The sophomore opposite hitter continued her Big Ten struggles with six kills and five errors on 27 attacks against Michigan. It was the eighth time in nine matches Sweet has hit .158 or lower. She has not cracked .100 in five of those matches.
Cook said the source of Sweet’s struggles are her footwork and timing on her attacking approach, which is resulting in her hitting the ball on the way down from her jump instead of at the top and letting opposing blockers redirect her shots.
“We’ve looked at it. We’ve studied it. She comes to my office and we look at it (on video),” Cook said. “Just sometimes players go through slumps, and they’ve got to figure out how to get out of it.”
Freshmen earn high praise
Cook took time Monday to highlight the defensive prowess of two freshman starters. After playing sparingly in the first half of Big Ten play, defensive specialist Megan Miller continued to justify her recent playing time with a career-high 23 digs in the win at Michigan.
The freshman from Alexandria, Indiana, had been competing with sophomore Hayley Densberger for the Huskers’ DS role, and after returning to the lineup on Oct. 20 at Minnesota, she has reached double-digit digs in three of her past five matches.
”I guess it goes back to butt-on-bench sends a message to the brain like, ‘I better start playing better. I better start doing what the coaches ask me. I better start bringing it every day in practice,’” Cook said. “That’s how they get better. It’s the only way I can explain it, but she has been playing at a really high level for us.”
Cook said freshman setter Nicklin Hames’ defensive prowess is a double-edged sword. Hames was named the Big Ten’s freshman of the week on Monday after extending her streak of matches with double-digit digs to 12 after picking up 18 recoveries at Michigan. But every time the setter plays the first ball, it means the Huskers are out of system and their chances of getting a quality transition swing are reduced.
Hames is second on the team averaging 3.41 digs per set. Her predecessor, Kelly Hunter, averaged 2.73 digs per set a year ago.
Ideally, more balls would be dug by whichever of the Huskers’ outside hitters is playing in the back row, libero Kenzie Maloney or a defensive specialist, leaving Hames to get into position to set. But, Cook allowed, it beats the alternative of letting an opponent’s shot drop.
”I just remind (Hames) that there’s other people out there playing defense,” Cook said. “But it’s a fine line between being too aggressive and not aggressive enough. On defense, it’s just like a scene from the movie ‘Top Gun.’ You don’t have time to think. You’ve just got to react.”