By Lincoln Arneal
A record-smashing crowd in New Jersey was treated to the Merritt Beason show on Sunday afternoon.
An announced attendance of 6,757 filled Jersey Mike’s Arena, obliterating Rutgers’ old school record of 1,872 last year, and saw Nebraska’s junior opposite fill the stat sheet with 21 kills on a .475 hitting percentage to go with nine digs and five blocks.
Behind Beason’s stellar performance, the top-ranked Huskers prevailed 25-15, 25-20, 25-18, improving to 23-0 to tie the third-best start in program history. NU also leads the Big Ten with a 14-0 record.
Beason, who was named the AVCA national player of the week on Oct. 24, made a good case for more recognition as she finished the weekend with 48 kills at a .446 clip following another standout performance in Friday’s five-set win at Penn State.
Her 21 kills against Rutgers tied Kelsey Robinson for the most by a Husker in a three-set match in the 25-point rally-scoring era (since 2008). She fell short of the rally-scoring sweep record, which Sarah Pavan set in 2006 with 24.
Since receiving national recognition, Beason is averaging five kills a set with a .430 hitting percentage.
“Those are some impressive stats,” NU coach John Cook said on his postgame radio interview. “Here’s the deal, though, with Merritt, every time she gets set, you expect her to kill the ball. When she doesn’t, it’s like, ‘Come on, Merritt.’”
Bergen Reilly racked up 43 assists to go with 12 digs. Cook said he wasn’t concerned by the heavy reliance on Beason. She finished with 40 attacks, five more than outside hitter Ally Batenhorst, who accumulated 11 kills. Harper Murray struggled with six kills and six errors on 26 swings.
“When somebody’s hitting like (Beason) is, you want to set her,” Cook said.
Cook said he planned to tell Reilly in practice on Tuesday not to set Beason to save her a bit for Wednesday’s matchup against Northwestern in Lincoln.
The crowd, which got into the match for free, marked the fourth time Nebraska has played on the road with a crowd larger than 6,000.
Behind the encouragement from the large audience, which included a sizable contingent rooting for the Huskers, Cook said Rutgers played one of its best matches of the season.
The Scarlet Knights (10-14, 2-12) hit .127, led by eight kills from Alissa Kinkela.
“They had a big crowd, and they were super fired up,” he said. “They weren’t letting anything hit the floor. They were flying all over the gym, and they should feel really good about their effort.”
NU took control of the first set, turning a 5-3 lead into a 12-5 advantage.
The second set was more of a battle as the Scarlet Knights led by as many as three. They momentarily went up four at 19-15, but a challenge replay reversed a call and sparked a 9-1 run that included seven straight Husker points.
NU left no doubt in the third set as it scored the first five points. Beason recorded two kills, and Bekka Allick added another while they teamed up for two blocks.
Allick finished with seven kills on 15 swings to go with five blocks. Freshman Andi Jackson also added seven kills with a .467 hitting percentage.
Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez finished with three assists, 12 digs, was perfect on 12 service receptions and didn’t miss any of her match-high 19 serves.
“She basically turned games around with her serving runs,” Cook said. “She set some great balls. We hit a huge number off her setting this weekend.”
The win capped a long East Coast road trip for the Huskers. They will have a quick turnaround for Northwestern this week. Cook said he would give the team Monday off before returning to the gym to prepare for the mid-week tilt.
“My nightmare is how to manage all this,” Cook said. “I told them after the match that you guys have earned a day off. This is a hard trip; all the flying and in the hotels and buses.”