By Lincoln Arneal
OMAHA — Creighton and Nebraska made history Wednesday night by setting a regular-season attendance record with 15,797 fans in the CHI Health Center Omaha.
The Bluejays almost made history on the court as they pushed No. 2 Nebraska to a fifth set, looking for their first-ever win against the Huskers.
However, NU rallied in the fifth set and emerged with a 25-18, 25-23, 25-27, 17-25, 15-9 win over No. 17 Creighton.
The last time the two in-state rivals played five sets was in 2018 when they set the old record of 14,022 fans. This year’s crowd was the 16th-largest ever for a college volleyball match.
“If Omaha’s gonna get over 15,000 in here, we might as well give them a show,” NU coach John Cook said. “I thought it was a heck of a show tonight. Great match. Both teams played some great volleyball. Both teams played their hearts out.”
Nebraska (6-0) almost made it a quick night as they dominated the first set. Sophomore Whitney Lauenstein set the tone, recording 15 of her career-best 25 kills during the first two sets with a .461 hitting percentage.
The sophomore opposite hitter’s previous best for a match was 15 kills against Tulsa earlier this season. Lauenstein had 28 attacks in that match and nearly doubled that with 52 versus Creighton and finished with a match-best .385 hitting percentage.
Lauenstein said the Huskers had a sloppy serve-and-pass practice Tuesday, and she made it a point to step up and take on the offensive responsibility.
“I knew there was gonna be a big crowd tonight and I like big crowds. I think it was my time to shine,” she said. “We had a really long talk with the team after practice yesterday. So who’s gonna get the fire under their butt? Who’s gonna hold everyone accountable? I wanted that to be me so I stood up for my teammates and just gave them everything I got.”
Cook said it reminded him of All-American Mikaela Foecke’s performance against the Bluejays four years ago.
“She had the same amount of kills as Foecke did in 2018 and did it in five less swings,” Cook said. “Foecke is pretty good. Whitney has got to prove it now over a long season but she came to play tonight.”
While Launstein thrived, Cook said Ally Batenhorst was in pain from an abdominal muscle strain during warm-ups, the same injury that caused her to miss the Red-White scrimmage. He didn’t consider a system change and inserted freshman Hayden Kubik late in the first set, and she played the rest of the match.
In the second set, Creighton (5-2) scored five straight points getting out to an 11-7 lead before the Huskers started to rally. NU regained the lead 23-22 on a kill by senior Madi Kubik. Following a hitting error, the Huskers closed out the set on a CU service error and kill from Lindsay Krause.
After intermission, Creighton grabbed the momentum and led for most of the third set. But, again, the Huskers mounted a late comeback. They had a match-point at 25-24, but the Bluejays scored the set’s final three points on two kills and an NU hitting error.
The fourth set was never close as the Bluejays scored the first three points of the set and never trailed. The Huskers hit .047 in the set with just eight kills.
Before the final set, the players took over the huddle and challenged each other to step up and deliver in the big moment.
“We made the choice that in that fifth set, we were going to show that we wanted it and I feel like that was the change in energy,” Krause said.
With Creighton leading 6-5, Krause took over the match. She recorded two kills and a block with Bekka Allick to give NU the lead as part of a 4-0 run.
After Creighton closed to 10-9, NU scored the final five points on kills from four different players. Hayden Kubik delivered the final point with her sixth kill of the match.
Cook said he wrote the jersey numbers of Krause (22) and Hayden Kubik (33) on the whiteboard in the locker room because they stepped up down the stretch.
“(Krause) is a warrior and she played great in game five tonight,” Cook said. “Those two made a huge difference in game five. I mean, Hayden Kubik had a couple of huge swings. Those are big girl swings that she had in game five. We needed those two guys to really step up.”
Madi Kubik finished with a double-double with 14 kills and 12 digs. Libero Lexi Rodriguez anchored the NU defense with 18 digs. Both NU setters tallied 17 digs, while Nicklin Hames recorded 38 assists and Anni Evans had 35.
Kaitlyn Hord finished with just four kills but added six blocks.
Keeley Davis led Creighton with 19 kills, while sophomore Norah Sis added 15 kills and 12 digs.
Sis, who is best friends with Krause from their days growing up in Papillion, rolled a signed mini volleyball to her during the starting lineup introductions. Sis said she wrote “Please, don’t block me” on the ball.
“And she didn’t,” Sis said. “It was really special to play against her and in that big event environment. … I love playing against her. She’s incredibly talented. I like cheering her on.”
Freshman Sky McCune finished with a match-high 22 digs and 31 serve receptions as Creighton did not allow any Husker ace serves.
After the match, the Huskers said they were excited to play in front of an electric environment in their home state. Lauenstein said the experience was surreal.
Krause said she’s been to the arena many times to watch basketball and other volleyball matches. She was in the stands for the 2018 showdown.
“It’s an amazing moment. I remember coming to this match last year and thinking, `I don’t care if this person is wearing blue or wearing red. They’re all coming to a volleyball match,’” Krause said. “We’re playing a volleyball match in an 18,000-capacity arena not for a final four. We’re just playing each other. That is such an amazing thing. No matter who is playing, to have that big of a crowd at a women’s sports match is very fulfilling.
Cook said he enjoyed the atmosphere and took a lot of pride in all the success of instate volleyball, including nationally ranked high school teams, Top 10 ranked Division II teams, and a matchup between two Top 20 Division I schools. He’s already looking forward to Creighton coming to Lincoln next season, and possibly playing in the 15,500-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena, which NU athletic director Trev Alberts is considering.
“This is a great venue for volleyball and Nebraska fans love it,” Cook said. “I think this sets up another epic battle next year. Maybe we look at going into PBA – I’m not promising Trev right now we’re gonna do that. This is gonna get people fired up about volleyball. It’s a celebration of volleyball in this state.”