Nebraska knows Creighton, its ‘biggest rival,’ poses stiffest challenge
LINCOLN — Mikaela Foecke has played — and starred — in more than her share of big matches. So when she affixes that label to an upcoming contest, it carries some weight.
More than 10,000 fans. Playing in the same arena where she appeared in the first of three straight final fours. Going up against “our biggest rival,” in what Nebraska coach John Cook says will be an atmosphere similar to a regional final.
No, it’s not Penn State, Stanford or Texas Foecke was referring to, but Thursday’s Interstate 80 showdown between No. 7 Nebraska and No. 14 Creighton at the CHI Health Center.
“Getting to play our in-state rival is a big deal,” Foecke said. “I’m honestly not sure if we’ve ever lost to Creighton. That’s obviously another big pressure to go out and beat them and play our best.”
After a year off, Nebraska (4-1) and Creighton (4-2) will pick up the series again Thursday at 7 p.m. with the Huskers looking to remain unbeaten against the Bluejays. Nebraska has won all 17 of the previous regular-season meetings, with Creighton’s lone taste of success coming in a spring exhibition win over the Huskers in 2013.
Both Foecke and Cook heaped praise on the Bluejays Monday, with Cook saying that CU, not No. 8 Florida, would be the best team Nebraska has played to date while ticking off the strengths of Creighton’s roster.
“They’ve got two left sides (Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth),” Cook said. “Their transfer setter (Madelyn Cole) is doing a great job. (Megan) Ballenger has been a great player the whole time she’s been there. Brittany Witt is a great libero. They’re only playing one freshman really, so they’re experienced. They know what they’re doing.”
Nebraska’s two seniors, Foecke and libero Kenzie Maloney, are the only two Huskers who have played in a match against Creighton. But Foecke has made her appearances count. Her 13 kills on .522 hitting paced NU’s sweep of Creighton in Omaha in 2015 as part of a showdown with another freshman from Iowa, Jaali Winters of Creighton, who had a match-high 15 kills and hit .414.
The teams’ most recent meeting was Nebraska’s 3-1 win in 2016 at the Devaney Center when Foecke and Winters each had 11 kills.
“Creighton is a great team every single year,” Foecke said. “Especially the past few years, they’ve made great runs in the NCAA tournament, so you always have to be watching out for them. They can be that team that gets you out of nowhere.”
Cook said the two programs couldn’t make schedules match up to play last season, but hopes the rivalry can be continued without interruption going forward. A meeting is already in place for next year. Cook said it might even come on the opening weekend of the season.
More than 10,000 tickets for Thursday’s match have been sold already, and though the Huskers likely will be facing, at worst, a neutral crowd, Cook hopes to use the experience to simulate a road match for his seven newcomers, which includes four freshman who have been in the playing rotation so far. Nebraska, which has played all five of its matches this season at the Devaney Center, will travel to Omaha and stay in a hotel Wednesday night.
Thursday will be the only nonconference match the Huskers will play away from home and will come against a Creighton club that already has faced top-20 opponents USC and Kentucky. The Bluejays also will play at No. 11 Illinois in two weeks.
“A year ago they were ranked higher than us,” Cook said. “I don’t know that there’s any pressure (for us). We’re looking forward to a great competition. For us, it’s part of our preparation for the Big Ten. They’re going to be a high-RPI team because they’ve played some big teams.
“I think it’s great for the state of Nebraska. There’s probably going to be over 10,000 (fans) in there. We all have got to be proud of where women’s volleyball is at in the state.”
Sun taking increased reps
Last weekend’s Ameritas Players Challenge offered Nebraska fans their first chance to see transfer outside hitter Lexi Sun in a Husker uniform, but only if they paid attention to pregame warm-ups.
Sun, who was an All-Big 12 pick as a freshman at Texas last year, has not made her NU debut in a match yet as she recovers from an injury. But after watching the Huskers’ first weekend in street clothes, Sun went through hitting warm-ups and took a few full swings on Friday night before the Huskers’ match with Wake Forest and again on Saturday prior to the Santa Clara match.
Cook said he’d need to see Sun go through a couple days of full participation in practice — including some full-speed hitting drills — before he would play her in a match.
“She’s got to go through the ringer,” Cook said.
The Huskers are hoping that test is passed sooner rather than later as two underclassmen have struggled to produce at the second outside hitter spot in Sun’s place. Sophomore Sami Slaughter has 22 kills on .078 hitting in her four starts. Freshman Capri Davis has spelled Slaughter several times and made one start, putting down 16 kills to go with 13 attack errors.
Foecke said her advice to her younger teammates would be to develop a short memory and not let doubts follow you into the next play.
“Nobody’s perfect, but that (previous swing) doesn’t matter,” she said. “Keep moving on to the next point and swing with confidence.”
Nebraska No. 7 in poll
Upsets shook up the top 10 in Monday’s AVCA coaches poll, and despite a 3-0 weekend, Nebraska fell two spots to No. 7.
The Huskers were leapfrogged by two teams that picked up upset wins over the weekend. Last week’s top team, Stanford, fell to No. 4 after losing in five games at BYU. The Cougars jumped six spots to No. 3. Wisconsin also moved up six spots, to No. 2, after beating Texas in Madison.
Minnesota is the new No. 1 team, grabbing 35 first-place votes. But in a sign of how little consensus voters reached, seven teams received at least one first-place vote. Nebraska was given three.
The new top 10: Minnesota, Wisconsin, BYU, Stanford, Penn State, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, UCLA and USC.
Huskers host official visits
Though all five have previously announced commitments to Nebraska, the Huskers hosted five recruits for 2019 on official visits during the Ameritas Players Challenge.
The five prospects who will join Nebraska next season include three scholarship players ranked in the top 40 in the country by PrepVolleyball.com.
Outside hitter Madi Kubik of West Des Moines, Iowa, was recently named the nation’s No. 4 prospect, and will join defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles of Yorktown, Indiana, the country’s No. 37 recruit, in enrolling early in January.
The class also includes the country’s No. 32 recruit, 6-foot-5 Riley Zuhn, a middle blocker/opposite prospect from Fort Collins, Colorado, and a pair of in-state walk-on prospects in Johnson-Brock outside hitter Fallon Stutheit and Lincoln Pius X defensive specialist Emma Gabel.