Badgers block NU’s dreams

Huskers fall in five sets as Wisconsin continues to be a nemesis

Story by Darren Ivy

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Nebraska has continued to close the gap with Wisconsin this season, but continued to be blocked by the taller Badgers in the NCAA championship match on Dec. 18 before the largest crowd (18,755) to ever witness a college volleyball championship match at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

The fourth-seeded Badgers, who swept Nebraska in their first meeting this season and won in four sets in their second meeting, used a dominating block to win the third and most important meeting of the season 22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-15, 15-12.

The 24 blocks by the Badgers were a title game record and proved to be too much for 10th-seeded Nebraska to overcome despite NU winning the dig battle 93-79.

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“The fans got their money’s worth,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “It was a great match with two great teams. There is not a lot of separation in points like it has been all year. It was a great match. I told the team, ‘This might be the most proud I’ve been of a Nebraska team – how they handled this season, the setbacks and losses to get to this match and play like that.’

“Even to get way down in the fifth and fight our way back. Just a tremendous amount of heart, grit, resiliency. These guys have done it everyday. I am a very, very proud coach. These guys are going to own Nebraska with this effort win or lose tonight. Husker Nation is really, really proud right now.”

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NU (26-8) started out its 10th championship match like the team that had won six consecutive matches, including four against ranked opponents, leading up to the final.

The Huskers raced to a 5-1 lead behind the serving of Lexi Rodriguez. Wisconsin battled back to take an 11-10 lead, but NU again answered with a 5-1 run behind Rodriguez’s serving. Up 24-22, Lauren Stivrins ended set one with a kill.

The Huskers looked like they were going to win set two as they jumped to a 13-7 advantage. NU continued to lead and on the first set point, Madi Kubik had a serving error. Wisconsin (31-3) fought off four set points in all and eventually won 31-29 behind two blocks in a row by 6-foot-8 Dana Rettke.

In set three, Wisconsin led for much of it before the Huskers rallied to tie things at 23. However, the Badgers won the next two points to go up two sets to one. Of the nine sets, UW took from NU this year, six were by two points.

Nebraska looked like it was going to run away with the fourth set as it went up 24-20, but then Wisconsin got things back to 24-23 before freshman Ally Batenhorst got the kill to force a fifth set.

In the fifth set, Nebraska fell behind 7-0. Nebraska clawed back within 9-5, 10-7 and 11-8. The Huskers also got within 14-12 after a successful challenge reversed match point for the Badgers and gave NU new life.

Nebraska, which was going for its sixth national championship, couldn’t take advantage. NU dug the Badgers three times before Player of the Year Rettke ended the match with a kill to give the Badgers their first volleyball national championship.

The Badgers improved to 4-1 in five-set matches this season, while NU fell to 1-3 in five-set contests.

Rettke finished with 11 kills. The Badgers were led by 6-foot-9 Anna Smrek, who had 14 kills, and Jade Demps, who had most of her 12 kills from the back row. The Badgers had their second-lowest hitting percentage of the season thanks to NU’s defense.

Keonilei Akana finished with a career high 24 digs. Hames added 23 digs to go with her 56 set assists. Kubik had 14 digs to go along with her 19 kills and Rodriguez had 13. Kayla Caffey added 15 kills.

All-American Honors

Four players who could return for Nebraska earned AVCA All-American honors including freshman Lexi Rodriguez, who was first team; senior Kayla Caffey, second team; junior Madi Kubik, third team, and senior Nicklin Hames, honorable mention.

Rodriguez becomes the AVCA’s first true freshman first-team All-American since 2017 (Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke). Rodriguez is one of just three Huskers to get an All-American nod as a true freshman, joining Sarah Pavan (2004) and Kadie Rolfzen (2013).

Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins, a three-time All-American, was not eligible this season because she did not meet the requirement for the number of sets played during the season.

The 10th-seeded Huskers rallied to upend third-seeded Pitt 3-1 (16-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-22) in the NCAA Semifinal at Nationwide Arena in Columbus that began on Dec. 16 and stretched into the morning of Dec. 17 to earn their 10th championship final trip. Nebraska will be going for its sixth national championship.

Madi Kubik was solid in all phases of the game to lead Nebraska in the semifinal. Kubik finished with a match-high 13 kills and added a career-high-tying three service aces to go along with seven digs and two blocks. Kubik posted her 24th match this season with at least 10 kills.

Kayla Caffey joined Kubik in double-digit kills with 10, and Caffey added four blocks. Lindsay Krause had nine kills on 19 swings and Lauren Stivrins had nine kills on 17 swings with a match-high six blocks. Ally Batenhorst added seven kills. Nicklin Hames registered her 23rd double-double of the year with 45 assists and 13 digs, while Lexi Rodriguez (13) and Keonilei Akana (11) also had double-digit digs.

Nebraska hit .239 in the match, rebounding from a .167 attacking percentage in the first set. The Huskers held Pittsburgh to a .233 attack percentage, the Panthers’ lowest mark of the NCAA Tournament. Pitt hit .483 in winning the first set, but NU limited the Panthers to a .163 attack percentage over the final three sets. Nebraska also won the serve-and-pass battle with six aces against only six errors, while Pittsburgh had five aces and 12 errors. The Huskers also out-blocked the Panthers 10-7, but Pitt finished with more digs (56-50).

The win earned Nebraska a third shot at Wisconsin this season and it will be a rematch of the 2000 national championship match won by Nebraska in five sets.

Behind strong serving, suffocating defense and stellar offensive performances from its freshmen pin hitters, the No. 10 Nebraska volleyball team won a thrilling 3-1 victory over No. 2 Texas on Dec. 11 at the Longhorns’ Gregory Gymnasium in the final of the Austin Regional. With the 25-19, 25-23, 23-25, 25-21 victory, the Huskers advanced to Dec. 16 NCAA Semifinal in Columbus, Ohio.

Nebraska (25-7) became the lowest-seeded team to advance to the NCAA Semifinals since 2014. The Huskers, who handed Texas (27-2) its first loss at Gregory Gym since the 2019 NCAA Regional Semifinal, headed to their 16th NCAA Semifinal appearance and fifth trip in the past seven seasons.

The Huskers were led offensively by their talented freshmen hitters Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause, who combined for 28 kills on .519 attacking. Batenhorst, a Texas native, had 15 kills – tying her career high – with only two errors on 32 swings, hitting .406. Krause, who was celebrating her 19th birthday, put down 13 kills – two shy of her career high – while attacking at a .500 clip to tie for the highest hitting percentage of her career. Krause also added five blocks, matching Lauren Stivrins for team-high honors in that category. Madi Kubik matched Batenhorst for team-high honors with 15 kills. Keonilei Akana had a career-high seven aces, the most ever by a Husker in a four-set NCAA Tournament match and tied for the most by a NU player in any NCAA Tournament match. Lexi Rodriguez added a match-high 20 digs – her eighth 20-dig match of the season – while Nicklin Hames posted another double-double with 43 assists and 13 digs, and she also had kills on all three of her attempts. At the match’s conclusion, Hames, Krause and Kubik were all named to the NCAA Austin Regional All-Tournament Team. Hames was also honored as the regional’s Most Outstanding Player.

The 10th-seeded Nebraska volleyball team opened the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 3 with a 3-0 sweep of Campbell at the Devaney Center, using a strong defensive effort in a 25-14, 25-14, 25-17 victory.

The Huskers held Campbell to a -.022 attack percentage, marking the first time Nebraska has held an opponent to negative hitting in the NCAA Tournament since 2010. NU recorded 10 blocks and tallied 41 digs in limiting its second opponent this season to a negative hitting percentage.

Lexi Rodriguez led Nebraska’s floor defense with 10 digs in her postseason debut. Rodriguez broke Nebraska’s freshman digs record in the win, eclipsing Kenzie Knuckles’ mark of 444 set in 2019. Lauren Stivrins added a match-high six blocks for the Big Red. Stivrins also paced the Husker offense with nine kills on 17 swings, hitting .412 on the night. Kayla Caffey and Madi Kubik added seven kills apiece, and Caffey added three stops at the net. Lindsay Krause put down five kills on only nine swings to hit .444 in her tournament debut. Nicklin Hames led an offense that saw 10 Huskers finish with multiple kills, and she finished with 37 assists, seven digs, three blocks, three aces and two kills.

While Nebraska held Campbell to a negative attack percentage, the Huskers hit .272 and attacked at a .300 or higher clip in each of the first two sets. The Huskers doubled the Camels in blocks (10-5) and out-dug Campbell 41-36. Nebraska also served up six aces to the Camels’ one.

NU improved to 34-1 all-time in first-round NCAA Tournament matches. The Huskers have won their last 33 first-round matches dating back to 1984. NU improved to 55-1 all-time against unranked opponents in the NCAA Tournament.

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