Nebraska volleyball takes more baby steps while winning three matches

September 2, 2018

John Cook says this season is about taking baby steps for the Nebraska volleyball team on the way to trying to be a great team.

It’s like kindergarten class, the Nebraska coach says, which is probably thrilling for the 18- to 22-year-old players to hear. But the Huskers have eight new players, including five freshmen and two players from different countries. The whole team is taking baby steps, Cook says.

There were some more steps taken by the Huskers this weekend when they played three matches over two days in the Ameritas Players Challenge. A four-set win against Santa Clara on Saturday afternoon meant the Huskers won all three matches and improved their record to 4-1. Next up is a big match against No. 15 Creighton on Thursday in Omaha.

On Saturday, Jazz Sweet had 14 kills to lead the fifth-ranked Huskers in a 25-13, 21-25, 25-9, 25-15 victory. There was a crowd of 8,047 at the Devaney Sports Center that included Clarence Thomas, an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, watching from the coaches’ suite. He’s a big Nebraska fan who attends the matches when the Huskers play at Maryland.

Outside hitter Mikaela Foecke added 10 kills, 10 digs, three blocks and three ace serves and was named tournament MVP. Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins and Kenzie Maloney also made the all-tournament team.

When you’re taking baby steps, you sometimes trip, and that happened to the Huskers in the second set when Santa Clara won six straight points to take the lead near the end of the set.

Over the course of the three matches Cook said the Huskers were playing really well about 80 percent of the time. The opponents in the tournament weren’t great, but there were still some signs of some baby steps being taken by the Huskers. Among them:

* The middle blocker position can, and needs to be, a threat for the Huskers, and it may be inching that way. Nebraska needs opponents to think there is always a threat for the Husker middles to get set the ball, so they can’t just park their blockers in front of Foecke. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames is getting better at setting the ball high enough for Stivrins to be able to go up and really attack it. Cook sees signs that Hames can make the middles effective.

“I got to start getting (Hames) to play fearless, and being able to fire the ball around, because she’s capable of doing it,” Cook said.

Stivrins had seven kills and three blocks on Saturday. Freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach had a season-best nine blocks and two kills.

Cook thinks the potential of the middle blocker position this season is “awesome.”

“Callie will just continue to get better as she gets more and more comfortable, and I think Lauren is a game-changer,” Cook said.

* For the first time this season Cook felt like the Huskers were back to doing what they did best last season, and that’s pressuring teams with serving. Nebraska had 25 ace serves in three matches.

“I think this weekend we established a great serving mindset,” Cook said. “We’re still a little high-error, but we’re serving tough. Santa Clara had very few perfect passes, and Wake Forest I’m not sure had any (Friday). We’re really pressuring with our serve.”

On Saturday, Stivrins had another big run, serving an 8-0 spree for a 16-6 lead in the first set. She served two aces Saturday, and six for the weekend.

“She just goes up and kind of hits the crap out of it,” said Foecke of Stivrins’ serving.

* The Huskers got Sweet going more, and did so early in matches, which was an emphasis. Sweet and Hames are getting in a better rhythm, Cook says. Hames is a good enough setter to get the ball to Sweet in different situations, and they need to use that as an advantage.

* For now the second outside hitter is a question mark. Sami Slaughter played pretty good against Ohio on Friday, and then got benched in the middle of Saturday’s match in favor of Capri Davis. Then Davis was good. She had eight kills, hit .375 and looked like an All-American, Cook said. But on Friday she looked like she hadn’t played much volleyball, Cook said.

One encouraging sign here may be that transfer outside hitter Lexi Sun was in uniform and took part in warmups the past two matches, after being in street clothes the first three matches of the season. She’s had an undisclosed injury that’s kept her from doing much hitting in practice, but she’s hitting now.