By Lincoln Arneal
The pass was long and off-target.
It pulled Bergen Reilly from her position in the setter’s slot and right into the attack route being run by middle blocker Bekka Allick.
Rather than bail on the called play and send up an easy set to the left pin, Allick quickly called for a change, and Reilly altered her set from a quick attack in front of her to a back set touch while contorting her body so she was almost facing the net. The adjustment allowed Allick to stay on her path and slam the ball to the court for a kill.
The point may easily slip from memory in the overall scheme of the match. It gave Nebraska a 6-3 lead in the second set during a sweep against No. 21 Ohio State. But the seemingly common play speaks to the talent of Reilly.
It was anything but common. Reilly just made it look that way.
It’s something her teammates are growing used to, and Reilly credits them for the success. They have a connection, and it grows with each match.
“It was a difficult pass so Bekka made an audible – she wasn’t on what I originally told her, but she called something different,” Reilly said of that point. “We’ve really been working on getting the middles up regardless of where the pass is in less than ideal situations trying to find them. I think that that was a really good call by Bekka and then we made it work.”
Even though she defers to her teammates, Reilly is leading an offensive renaissance. During the last two seasons, NU has finished the season at .222 and .244, respectively. With the 6-foot-1 freshman running the show and with several new attackers, the Huskers are hitting close to .300, which they haven’t hit for a season since 2007 when the team featured Jordan Larson and Sarah Pavan.
While many factors go into a high-attacking efficiency – serve receive, passing quality, attackers’ prowess – the setter is at the center of it.
“A setter can raise the level (of an offense) just like a quarterback can raise the level of an offense if they can run and throw and be accurate and make good decisions,” NU coach John Cook said.
If a setter is doing her job, fans might not notice her at all.
They rarely thump big kills, make diving saves or get involved in momentum-shifting blocks. However, the setter is the most important player on the court, usually touching the ball each rally, sometimes multiple times.
Cook compared Reilly to an option quarterback and said she is like Husker football great Tommie Frazier. Their jobs are similar as they both need to read the defense and distribute the ball accordingly.
Setters have multiple decisions to make each rally. She can go quick to the middle, throw it out to the left pin or behind her to the right pin. She can also set it up for the back row or send the ball over on second contact.
All these decisions are influenced by the quality of pass she receives, what rotation the Huskers are in and what read she makes on the defense, among other factors.
“She’s making that decision in a very quick time,” Cook said.
To handle those split-second decisions, Nebraska works with the setters during film study on situations they might encounter during a match. They also review previous matches and discuss what worked, what didn’t and what might have been better.
Assistant coach Kelly Hunter said coaches don’t want to be so rigid that they establish rules for the setter. But she does want the setter to understand what might work on any given play. That way, Reilly knows what to do during matches and takes what is presented.
“She’s able to take more risks rather than just making the safe set,” Hunter said. “There’s some organicness there, and she’s able just to react and hear where her hitters are at and not be scared to set anyone at any given moment.”
Reilly came to Nebraska with an impressive resume. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native helped the U.S. junior national team win the U19 Pan Am Cup, earning best setter honors, and took the bronze at the U18 World Championships. She was also the first high schooler in more than three decades to play with the U.S. senior national team. As a top-five prospect, Reilly was the South Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year three times and won two state championships at O’Gorman High School.
Hunter said Reilly arrived with all the tools to be a great setter – technique, a calm demeanor and consistency – and her confidence has grown through beach season, spring practices and the Brazil trip.
“It’s normal for any freshmen coming into our program to be a little hesitant or nervous,” Hunter said. “I think she just gained some confidence and is a little bit more vocal. She’ll say what she’s thinking a little bit more and give more feedback rather than just kind of coming in and being someone who just sets goals every day. She’s a little bit more of a setter instead of just a ball distributor.”
It wasn’t a given that Reilly would guide the Husker offense. She battled junior Kennedi Orr, who has a long list of accolades herself, for the job. During the off-season, Cook said the two were dead even and split time against Wichita State in April and during the international trip.
Reilly earned the start for the season opener and hasn’t missed any action since. Orr helped her acclimate to college volleyball and the two remain close.
Orr, the No. 1 prospect in the 2020 class, said Reilly has great hands and is technically sound. In addition, her demeanor steadies the team.
“She’s so composed, especially for being a freshman,” Orr said. “It’s really easy to get caught up in leading an offense and just trying to lead the team in general as a setter has to do. I think Bergen is very integral to how our team keeps their cool, especially in tough moments. That’s super powerful.”
Reilly is the second true freshman at Nebraska to begin her career as the starting setter, joining Nicklin Hames in the exclusive club. Since arriving in January, she has made progress in finding the right tempo to run NU’s offense. Doing so can create one-on-one matchups for hitters or help create favorable matchups.
The most important aspect of the offensive tempo isn’t the speed but the consistency so hitters know what to expect and time their runs for a strong connection.
“She makes really great decisions, she sees the court really well and she sees the blocker on the other side,” junior outside hitter Ally Batenhorst said. “Her court awareness is very advanced, and I think that’s really helpful for us. We have holes in the block all the time.”
NU assistant coach Jaylen Reyes provided a film breakdown on social media showing what Reilly does that makes her elite. He said her posture and hand position stays neutral and she doesn’t give away her potential setting destination. She understands how to get hitters involved and build their confidence. If a hitter commits an error, Reilly will return to them quickly.
While Reilly is pulling the strings on the offense, she has plenty of help from NU’s attackers. Freshman middle blocker Andi Jackson has one of the best-attacking percentages in the nation.
Junior transfer Merritt Beason and freshman Harper Murray have provided plenty of firepower and new dimensions to the NU offense. According to Chad Gordon, who runs the volleyball analysis website volleydork.com, Murray statistically is the top back-row attacker in the country, and Beason is just not too far behind at No. 11.
Hunter said most teams take two approaches to back-row attacks – let hitters play six rotations or prioritize passing and substitute in defensive specialists. Because Murray and Beason are solid back-row defenders, they can play all the way around and provide more attacking.
Defense and depth have also fueled NU’s offense. It helps to have All-American Lexi Rodrigeuz and touted freshman Laney Choboy passing the ball to Reilly in-system and putting her in position to have multiple hitters available.
Nebraska’s bevvy of talent has also paid off. NU can plug in a player from the bench without a dropoff when someone suffers an injury or struggles during a match. Lindsay Krause and Batenhorst have switched off at the L2 position. Maggie Mendelson has stepped in at middle blocker for stretches.
Reilly said the team prides itself on having depth and relying on their connections on the court.
“It can be hard for other people coming in, but I think we all have that ultimate trust,” she said. “It’s really not a big issue if we have to put other people in, and I think that’s what makes this team so special.”
For all the success Nebraska had during the first two months of the season, the hard part is still ahead. The deeper the Huskers get into the Big Ten schedule, the more teams will be familiar with them and the more video they will have of NU’s tendencies.
Hunter said NU scouts itself, studying statistics and habits like they would an opponent. They don’t want a predictable attack and work to stay fresh. She said the most important work they do is to be good at their strengths first and then worry about what the other team is doing.
For Reilly, she’s not worried about inexperience yet. She’s focused on continuing to build her relationship with her teammates and enjoying the ride during her first year at Nebraska.
“We don’t see ourselves as a young team,” she said. “We know that there’s a lot of new players on the court, but we also have just been trusting our training and trusting that we have that connection. We have that chemistry, and we can go out there and beat anyone.”