The block didn’t touch Amaris Smith’s attack. Harper Murray got her fingertips on the ball before it bounced off Lexi Rodriguez’s shoulder out of bounds.
As the ball flew off into the stands, an uneasy groan filled the Devaney Center. No. 1 overall seed Nebraska trailed lowly Long Island 19-16 in the third set.
After NU coach John Cook called his only timeout of the match, the Huskers rallied and won nine of the next 12 rallies. Still, the match left an unsavory taste in Nebraska’s mouth after a 25-13, 25-16, 25-22 victory against the Sharks Friday night in front of 8,599 fans.
Junior opposite Merritt Beason said the Huskers would prefer not to be in a position where they have to mount a comeback, but they can learn from it like they have from previous matches.
“I think it was probably a good little wake-up call,” she said. “Teams are going to come at us, and teams are going to bring their best shot. Right now, it’s one and done.”
The Huskers will get a chance for redemption Saturday night when they take on No. 8 Missouri (18-12), which defeated Delaware 25-17, 25-22, 25-23 in the first match on Friday.
NU hit .280 for the match and failed to crack .300 in any set. The Sharks hit .151, led by 12 kills from Camelia Melendez. LIU outblocked the Huskers 8-6 for the match.
“Long Island played their style of volleyball tonight and kind of took us out of our game a little bit,” Cook said. “They got better as the match went on and made it a competitive match.”
In the first set, Nebraska led 19-17 and looked like it was going to cruise. The Huskers (29-1) were hitting .750 with four players terminating on every swing they had taken. Plus, NU had already recorded three aces. Meanwhile, the Sharks (13-19) hit negative with four kills and five errors.
NU’s cracks began to show as it committed five hitting errors and missed on a serve down the stretch, while still easily winning the set.
Beason said NU was too aggressive at times. She said instead of taking big rips, the Huskers could have hit the ball off the block to recycle the ball and keep the play alive.
“We could have been a little more low error, just forcing them to play volleyball, keeping the ball in the court and relying on that defense just a little bit more,” she said.
The second set was closer as LIU closed to 15-13 before NU stretched out its lead with three straight points.
Nebraska stumbled out of the gate in the third set, falling behind 4-1. LIU built that lead to 8-3 and then 11-5. The Huskers battled back and took their first lead of the set 23-22 before Beason terminated the final two rallies.
“I know it was a David versus Goliath type of situation, but I thought they fought hard,” LIU coach Amable Martinez said. “We pushed them a bit in the last set. Came up short, but I’m super proud of them for their effort.”
Beason recorded eight of NU’s 15 kills in the set. She finished with a match-high 13 kills on a .478 hitting percentage.
In the postgame press conference, Beason talked with a hoarse voice, saying she was sick last weekend and struggled to communicate with her teammates in the loud environment on the court. As a result, she had to lead by example instead of relying upon her usual vocal leadership.
“They did a really good job of stepping up in that vocal aspect when I needed them to,” Beason said. “I have to give a lot of credit to Lexi (Rodriguez) specifically because she’s not normally very vocal, but she was very vocal, especially in that third set. That’s why I love being a captain with Lexi because if one of us is struggling a little bit, and tonight that was my voice, she’s able to pick me up.”
Murray added nine kills while Ally Batenhorst recorded seven, but both finished hitting below .200.
Andi Jackson tallied six kills while Maggie Mendelson had six kills and four blocks in her fifth start of the season. Cook said he thought about playing her instead of Bekka Allick because Mendelson had been training well and he wanted to give her an opportunity to play.
Bergen Reilly had a solid showing as she recorded three of Nebraska’s seven aces. The freshman setter also tallied 33 assists, nine digs and three kills. Laney Choboy led the defense with 10 digs.
After the match, the LIU players were upbeat and excited about their effort despite their season ending.
“For me, it was huge. I’ve been trying (to reach the NCAA tournament) for three years,” LIU libero Alasha Colon said. “Third time’s a charm. It was extremely amazing to play in front of (almost) 9,000 people. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Cook said the Huskers need to improve their play against a more formidable Missouri team on Saturday, but he was glad they took care of business in the first round and kept moving forward.
“We were not disciplined, so they make you pay,” Cook said. “You got to give (LIU) credit. They kept battling. They could have packed it in, but this is their final four right here. This is a national championship match for them.”
Don’t let it be said that Matt Rhule doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.
The Husker head football coach announced Friday that Tony White, his defensive coordinator, has signed a restructured contract increasing his annual salary to $1.6 million per year for each of the two remaining seasons on his contract.
White, whose previous salary was $1 million annually, became a hot commodity this past season while turning around a Husker defense with his aggressive 3-3-5 scheme that he brought from Syracuse. Officially Nebraska’s associate head coach/defensive coordinator, White has been prominently mentioned in media reports with the head coaching opening at San Diego State, since filled, and various defensive coordinator openings.
White has all the attributes you look for in a coordinator or assistant coach, Rhule said in a release.
“He builds great relationships with his players and fellow coaches and is an elite teacher and communicator,” Rhule said. “We made great strides on defense this past season, and I look forward to continuing to work with Tony as we move forward and build this program.”
The 2023 Nebraska defense was the nation’s third-most improved unit against the run and ranked as the fourth-most improved in total defense.
Among the statistics White’s Blackshirts produced in 2023:
>> The 303.5 yards allowed per game is the best total defense average since 2009. >> Ranking 14th nationally in total defense marked the first top-25 defensive ranking since 2010.
>> Ranking eighth nationally in rushing defense – 92.9 yards per game – was the lowest since 1999.
>> Ranking 17th nationally in scoring defense at 18.3 points per game was the best since 2010. Additionally, eight Nebraska defensive players earned All-Big Ten recognition of some sort.
In a release, White said he is proud of what his players accomplished and that he is excited to build on that success moving forward.
“It is a privilege to have the opportunity to coach at Nebraska, and to work for a great leader in Coach Rhule,” he said. “I feel honored to work alongside our defensive staff every day.”
Nebraska has preached all year about taking it one match at a time. Don’t look back. Don’t look forward. Focus on the task at hand.
So even when that task is Long Island University, which is 13-18 with an RPI of 280 and appears overmatched in every aspect on paper, the top-seeded Huskers are sticking to the plan.
Heavily favored Nebraska will take on the Sharks in the back half of a doubleheader at the Deveney Center Friday night. In the opening first-round match, No. 8 Missouri (17-12) faces Delaware (24-4) at 4:30 p.m. The second match will follow, no earlier than 7 p.m., with the winners playing Saturday evening for a spot in the regionals.
Bergen Reilly realizes Nebraska has a target on its back as the No. 1 overall seed, but said the team likes the added pressure that comes with that status.
The freshman setter said NU has been preparing for postseason matches since the beginning of the year. Even though the team’s freshmen haven’t played in the NCAA tournament before, Reilly said she is learning about it from the upperclassmen.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” she said. “We know that these are technically bigger games, but in our eyes, every game is a big game.”
Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez said she likes this time of the year because everyone gets a fair shot at the national championship. All they have to do is win six matches in a row.
NU coach John Cook said the Huskers aren’t looking past anyone. They have to be ready for whatever gets thrown their way during the postseason because they are playing teams they aren’t used to facing.
“This time of year is about trying to play our best volleyball and the game is going to challenge us,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. So Long Island is going to challenge us in a different way than our next match will and then the next one, so we just gotta be prepared to work through those things.”
The first-round matchup will be the first ever between the Huskers and Long Island, a sports co-operative from its two campuses in Brooklyn and Brookville, New York, that started in 2019. The Brooklyn campus’ Blackbirds have qualified for the postseason 13 times since 2004.
After starting the year 1-12, LIU regrouped behind first-year coach Amable Martinez and finished fourth in the Northeast Conference. They knocked off top-seed Sacred Heart before defeating No. 2 Fairleigh Dickinson to secure an NCAA automatic bid.
Now, the Sharks get to play in front of a sold-out arena in one of the best college atmospheres.
“Long Island will be super fired up because they probably thought they’d never be in this moment and now they get to play at Nebraska and in front of 8,000 people,” Cook said. “In basketball, they call it March Madness. I don’t know what we call it in volleyball, but it’s becoming more and more like that.”
LIU isn’t as physical as the Big Ten teams that Nebraska faced recently and runs a slower tempo on offense. As a team, the Sharks hit .172 this season. Camelia Melendez averages 3.08 kills per set to lead them, while Amaris Smith is next best at 2.71 kills per set. To counter LIU’s attack, Cook said the Huskers must adjust the timing on their block.
The Sharks are also a quality serving team with 188 aces this season (1.64 per set). Eight players have recorded at least 10 aces for the Sharks, compared to just five for NU.
“They’re a very good serving team – that was the first thing that we noticed,” Cook said. “So our passers are going to have to do a good job.”
Rodriguez said she expects a hard-fought game despite the difference in records between the first-round opponents. LIU allows its opponent to hit just .182 and is led by libero Alasha Colon, who averages 5.4 digs per set.
“They’re not as big and physical. So we just got to be ready for more scrappy volleyball, some weird plays as a team,” she said. “A big goal is just to stay disciplined, whether it’s on our offense or defense.”
Cook said the priority of NU’s preparation is on its side of the net. The plan will be to play stout defense by touching balls at the net and passing well. He said the Huskers have won matches with defense, by outslugging opponents, being better from the service line and relying on hustle to win long rallies.
“We pride ourselves on being a great defensive team. So you have to understand what they’re trying to do and how we can slow that down and take that away,” Cook said. “You’re just trying to leverage your strengths and limit theirs. That’s why we’re one of the top defensive teams in the nation every year. It’s not just by luck that happens. It’s pretty much very consistent, and we work really hard at it.”
Krause Still Out
Cook said Lindsay Krause would not play in matches this weekend, but she’s nearing a return after suffering an ankle injury in mid-October. The junior outside hitter practiced this past week and might go through warm-ups and starting lineup introductions.
After dominating the Big Ten for most of the year, Nebraska dominated Thursday’s end-of-season awards.
The top-ranked Huskers won four of the five individual honors and placed four players on the All-Big Ten first team, the most in the conference.
Freshman Bergen Reilly was honored as the setter of the year, junior libero Lexi Rodriguez repeated as defensive player of the year after also winning it in 2021 and outside hitter Harper Murray was selected as the top freshman in the Big Ten.
John Cook was named the league’s coach of the year by the media and his fellow head coaches. He said he was honored to be recognized by his peers.
“That means a lot because I know how hard this conference is, how many great coaches there are and how competitive it is,” Cook said during a BTN interview. “To win that award, it’s hard and it means a lot. I’m very, very appreciative and there’s a lot of other coaches that certainly could deserve it.”
Sarah Franklin of Wisconsin was named player of the year after averaging 4.17 kills per set with a .308 hitting percentage while adding 2.02 digs per set and 572 serve receptions.
Murray, Reilly, Rodriguez and junior opposite Merritt Beason were all named to the All-Big Ten first team. Beason and Rodriguez were two of the seven unanimous first-team selections.
Middle blockers Andi Jackson and Bekka Allick were named to the second team. Reilly, Murray and Jackson were all named to the conference’s all-freshman team with the first two being unanimous selections.
The six honorees tied the 2016 and 1991 teams for the most honorees in a single season. The 2016 squad had four first-team selections and two honorable mentions, while the 1991 team earned four first-team selections, two second-team and one honorable mention.
Reilly is the first freshman to be named Big Ten setter of the year.
During Big Ten play, she averaged 11.19 assists as the Huskers hit .282, 47 points better than last season. She was named setter of the week four times and freshman of the week twice.
On the surface, Rodriguez seemed like a stretch for the award as she didn’t have the most digs in the league at 3.6 per set, the 10th-best in the Big Ten. However, she made up for that in quality as she passed an elite 2.45 rating out of 3. Opponents often built game plans to avoid Rodriguez, who was honored on the Big Ten first team for the third time. Plus, she was the most prominent player on NU’s defense, which limited opponents to a .141 hitting percentage, third-best in the nation.
Murray averaged 3.29 kills per set on a .250 hitting percentage. She also put up 2.1 digs per set and led the Huskers with 31 aces. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter won three weekly freshman honors.
Cook helped the Huskers integrate six newcomers and won the league by two games with no seniors on the roster. NU also navigated Volleyball Day in Nebraska, won the match of the year (Nebraska’s win over Wisconsin in Lincoln) and nearly went undefeated, finishing with a 28-1 record. It’s the fourth time he’s won league coach of the year. He was recognized in 1997 (at Wisconsin), 2016 and 2017. He also was named the top coach in the Big 12 four times (2001, 2005, 2008, 2010).
Beason averaged 4.49 points per set as she put up 3.81 kills on a .284 hitting percentage for the season. She upped her game against Big Ten competition with 4.03 kills at a .296 clip. The junior opposite added 27 aces and 80 blocks, averaging 2.08 digs per set.
Jackson finished the regular season with a .408 hitting percentage, which was second in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation, with 2.1 kills per set. The 6-foot-5 freshman also added 1.06 blocks per set. She earned one freshman-of-the-week award this season.
Allick was fourth in the Big Ten with 1.35 blocks per set. The sophomore middle blocker added 1.82 kills on a .324 hitting percentage. She was also a second-team selection last year.
Maggie Mendelson was NU’s sportsmanship honoree. The sophomore middle blocker has appeared in 12 matches this year with 21 kills and 11 blocks. She was also named to the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team earlier this year.
Moments after recording a kill against Penn State that gave Nebraska a 20-15 lead in the fourth set, Merritt Beason celebrated with her teammates.
As the huddle broke up, she could tell something was not right with Bekka Allick. The Nittany Lions had blocked the sophomore middle blocker on the prior point, and Beason could tell the hitting error still bothered her.
Beason took a beat, said a few words and made Allick laugh. As they turned toward the net to prepare for the next point, Beason continued chatting with her teammate, comforting Allick, building her up and keeping her engaged in the moment.
Sensing the mistake was still looming in Allick’s mind, Beason reminded her of all the block touches she had that night and the positive plays she already had made.
“I tend to try to shift it to something more positive and if one area isn’t going great for them that day,” she said. “I even do that with myself, but we try to focus on the things that aren’t going well. And so (what I say to them) depends on the moment. It could be technical, and it also could just be a little bit of encouragement.”
The brief interaction during Nebraska’s reverse sweep lasted 10 seconds in total, but encapsulates Beason’s impact on the Huskers’ magical season. Those moments happen in almost every match, practice and teammate gathering. Not only is she the Huskers’ leading point scorer, but she’s also a co-captain, helping a young team navigate one of the toughest schedules in the country. She’s the centerpiece of why this Nebraska team earned the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which starts this weekend.
Junior outside hitter Ally Batenhorst said not only is Beason dependable and steady, but she delivers in the clutch and knows how to motivate teammates. Against the Nittany Lions, Beason’s night included a career-high 27 kills on a .426 hitting percentage and an impassioned speech in the locker room after NU dropped the first two sets.
“She knows exactly what to say when it needs to be said,” Batenhorst said. “She knows how each person is on the court and what each person needs. And I think she does a good job of giving that when it’s needed.”
This season, Beason has put together an impressive resume.
She’s a rare right-side attacker who plays six rotations. She’s opened up the Husker offense by forcing the defense to pay attention to her no matter where she is on the court.
“With Merritt, every time she gets set, you expect her to kill the ball. When she doesn’t, it’s like, ‘Come on, Merritt,’” NU John Cook said jokingly after a match.
During Big Ten play, Beason averaged 4.03 kills per set while hitting .296, plus she added more than two digs per set. She was named Big Ten Player of the Week four times and earned national player of the week honors following NU’s win over Wisconsin. She’s a lock to be named an All-Big Ten first team and will likely earn All-American honors.
However, all those accomplishments and gaudy statistics are secondary to Cook. He said Beason’s impact off the court is more significant than on it.
“She just keeps everybody really grounded, and they all really, really respect her,” Cook said.
He said Beason embraced NU’s training and implemented new techniques into her game. Cook called her one of the most coachable players he’s ever had.
“She wants feedback, and she wants to try to always be making something better, whether it’s serving, passing, attacking, blocking. Not every player wants to be coached.”
Bergen Reilly said she has learned a lot from Beason in their time together. The freshman setter said Beason is personable and builds confidence in her, so they are ready to deal with adversity when the tough times come.
In practice, Nebraska will do passing drills where a pairing of players has to earn points for a perfect pass before they can take a break. Beason will stand by the court and wait until everyone is done before heading to the bench.
Freshman defensive specialist Laney Choboy said Beason brings positive energy and is consistent. Beason will gather the group and get them back on track if they struggle in practice.
As someone who rides the emotional roller coaster during a match, Choboy said she appreciates Beason’s steady presence where she can’t tell if Beason is killing every ball or hitting negative.
“She’s very calm, which I am not,” Choboy said. “Especially being young, we haven’t really been through a season like this and had to do things emotionally like this. So she does a really good job of setting that example.”
The relationship began after a quick courtship.
Nebraska wasn’t planning to tap the transfer market, but when Whitney Lauenstein stepped away from the team shortly after the season, it opened a scholarship and created an immediate need. Even though Lindsay Krause had played as opposite hitter during the 2022 season, she was slated to return to her more natural position on the left pin.
The day after the NU coaches learned of Lauenstein’s departure, Beason appeared in the portal after playing two seasons at Florida.
Allick and Lexi Rodriguez were already familiar with Beason after the three were teammates at the 2022 Women’s U21 Pan Am Cup. The United States won the gold medal, and Beason was named MVP. That Rodriguez and Allick encouraged the coaches to reach out was a positive sign.
“Lexi and Bekka were so adamant about needing this girl on our team,” NU assistant coach Jaylen Reyes said. “Not purely because of her volleyball abilities but because of how she is as a human being.”
Nebraska was Beason’s first recruiting call after she entered the portal, and by 7:30 the next morning, she was on a flight to Nebraska.
She spent less than two days in Lincoln and got a whirlwind tour of the campus and city, which reminded her of her hometown of Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham. Beason met staff members and several players still on campus during the latter stages of finals week.
After making official visits to Wisconsin and Auburn, Beason pledged to the Huskers on Dec. 23. A month later, she was in Lincoln starting with a new program.
She quickly made an impression. From the first days as part of the program, Beason emerged as a leader, albeit unofficial. She praised her teammates for creating a positive team atmosphere for building relationships.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the girls that are the returners because they welcomed us with wide open arms and they kind of made it a very safe space for us to all come in and be ourselves,” Beason said.
Beason attended seminars the NU coaching staff arranged during the spring to cultivate leadership and build a sense of camaraderie on a team with no seniors. To cap off the semester, Cook asked everyone who wanted to be a captain to get up and talk to the team. Everyone spoke.
After hearing her talk during those meetings and watching how quickly she blended with her teammates, Cook said he knew Beason had leadership potential.
During the whirlwind recruitment, the coaches didn’t talk about Beason’s experience as a captain at Florida during her sophomore season. They were more focused on her skill set and the fact that she filled a need they had in the lineup.
After the spring match in Central City, Beason was selected by her teammates to address the sold-out crowd following the match. Although she wasn’t officially named a captain yet, her influence on the team was already growing.
“She has definitely stepped up as someone who wants to lead,” Cook said after the spring match. “For (her) to get to do it at this level with this type of team and all the great players we have is pretty special, and she’s really embraced it. Those guys follow her anywhere.”
The official title of captain came in June during the Huskers’ two-week international trip. While in Brazil, the Huskers continued to talk about leadership and the responsibility that comes with the title of captain. During one of the trip’s final days, Cook asked anyone who felt ready to be captain to address the team. This time, six people made their case.
Rodriguez and Beason emerged as consensus picks during individual meetings with the coaches. On the flight back, the pair learned about their selection from the plane’s pilot as he welcomed them to the captain club.
“I just came in, put my head down, and did what I needed to do,” Beason said. “Ultimately, I focused on those relationships with everyone – the freshmen, the newbies that I was coming in with and then everyone else. I think it’s definitely a huge honor. I don’t know; it’s pretty surreal. But I would say I just focused on being myself and just let it all fall into place.”
Before the season, Beason described herself as the mother of the team. She carries nearly every possible item in her bags, from ChapStick to snacks, but also provides intangible items they might need.
“I’m a very caring person as well,” she said. “If anyone on the team needs anything, they know that they can come to me, and I will be there. It doesn’t matter when it is or who it is or things of that nature, I’ll be there.”
Beason wants to be a second-grade teacher. Cook said it takes a special person to want to educate children and that Beason exudes charisma, a genuine interest in helping others, and kindness, which puts others at ease.
“One of her superpowers is she just creates stability on our side of the net,” Cook said. “Everybody’s calm and together, and she’s kind of in the heart and center of that.”
Beason isn’t alone in leading the team. She has worked with Rodriguez to guide the Huskers this season. Rodriguez was a co-captain last season for the Huskers and was also selected as the captain of the U21 national team, where she played with Beason and Allick.
They have complementary styles. Rodriguez is quieter and often leads by example, while Beason is more the one to address the team and challenge them.
Rodriguez said Beason has grown as a leader as she’s become more comfortable at Nebraska. Initially, Beason led by her words, but Rodriguez said she has stepped up on the biggest stages.
“It’s really good for the younger ones to look up to her and see how she gets after it in those big moments in those big games,” Rodriguez said. “When we need something at a pressure-filled moment, she’s always someone who’s going to take a big swing or make a big play.”
The pairing has made for the right combination to help the Huskers go 28-1 during the regular season and put together their best season start since the 2005 team opened 28-0. NU has conquered all the obstacles this year – playing in front of 92,003 in Memorial Stadium, taking down Stanford on the road, knocking off Wisconsin, rallying for a reverse sweep at Penn State and winning the Big Ten championship.
“My respect for Merritt and Lexi goes up every week for the job that they’re doing and how they’re managing this team and how they’re keeping everybody together,” Cook said. “Those two are very, very gifted leaders and they work really well together. They’re doing an amazing job because what we’re trying to do is not easy.”
Beason and Rodriguez communicate constantly and check in on each other. They talk about team issues, what happens in practice and how to keep their team unity strong. Cook said they know the responsibility they have and embrace it.
Beason said the most challenging aspect of being a captain is remembering to care for herself. Even in her second year as a captain, she gets wrapped up in building relationships with everyone else.
She’s built a network of supporters to help her. Beason and Rodriguez share brief moments during matches to see if the other needs anything. Beason will also check in with coaches and director of operations Lindsay Peterson.
Behind Beason’s on-the-court play and leadership, the Huskers are poised to make a deep tournament run. They’ve fought adversity together and are ready to take on any challenge. Beason said she hasn’t had to talk much about the will to fight to succeed as everyone understands they will have each other’s back.
“It makes it really, really easy to go out there and to compete when you know that everyone on the team has the same mindset of we’re gonna do whatever it takes,” she said. “Whatever’s in the way, we’re going to figure out a way to get around it. It’s really special.”
The cliche as the postseason starts is every team is 0-0.
But getting to 0-0, or reaching the postseason, is typically quite a ride. Each team has its own path and journey that got them to the NCAA tournament. Significant happenings, character-defining matches and events that shaped their identities.
Entering the season, Nebraska was expected to be good. It was tied for fifth place in the preseason rankings. The Huskers won 27 matches to start the season, their best start since 2005, and won the Big Ten title. Nebraska enters the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
Along the way, the Huskers made history multiple times and served notice that their freshman class was ready to compete now. Here are the most significant dates from the 2023 season:
Jan. 23 — The first day of classes for Nebraska
This might not seem like a big deal in the team’s journey, but it all started here. All 14 members were enrolled in classes for second semester and began to work out together. Even though Maggie Mendelson was with the basketball team, all five freshmen, who enrolled early, and transfer Merritt Beason were on campus. Having the whole group together allowed them to jump-start building chemistry and figure out how all the pieces fit together.
April 29 — Spring match in Central City
The exhibition match against Wichita State was the public’s first chance to see NU’s newcomers, and they didn’t disappoint in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,096. Harper Murray recorded 12 kills and a .391 hitting percentage in two sets. Andi Jackson jumped out of the gym on her way to seven kills in one set. Beason gave her first display of leadership by addressing the crowd after the match.
May 29-June 14 — The Brazil Trip
Two weeks on the road in a foreign country can bring a group together. While the competition was mixed, the Huskers went undefeated and received a couple of good tests from the Military Select and U21 teams. They also selected their captains on this trip and continued to develop chemistry.
Aug. 19 — Red-White Scrimmage
Usually, the intrasquad matches are about fine-tuning lessons from fall camp, putting on a show and letting the players get used to playing in front of a sold-out Devaney Center. This exhibition was one of the most competitive Red-White matches in program history. With 14 available players, the teams split into two sides and played a real match. The Red team won in four sets but came out on top in each of the three sets by just two points. The Huskers showed they have lots of depth and a competitive fire that would serve them well.
Aug. 30 — Volleyball Day in Nebraska
This was one of the premier events in volleyball history as 92,003 fans filled Memorial Stadium to watch Nebraska play. It put a spotlight on Nebraska and attracted worldwide coverage. Even though the playing conditions weren’t ideal, the Huskers put on a show in the spotlight and handled all the hoopla with aplomb. This was more about celebrating volleyball and creating memories that will last a lifetime.
Sept 12 — Road win at Stanford
Yes, Nebraska already had picked up a ranked win against No. 16 Creighton, which didn’t have Norah Sis, but this put the Huskers on the map as a national contender. NU outplayed the fifth-ranked Cardinal on their home court hitting .333. The Huskers peaked in the second set with 17 kills at a .696 clip.
Sept. 29 — Road win at Purdue
The Big Ten schedule had kicked off the week before, but this was Nebraska’s first big league test. The Boilermakers pushed NU to five sets, but fans saw a glimpse of Murray’s grit as she recorded six kills in the fifth set to help deliver a victory. It wasn’t the prettiest at times, but NU got the job done.
Oct. 17 — Lindsay Krause’s Ankle Injury
The junior outside hitter was hurt in practice and wouldn’t appear in another regular season practice. Just over a week before she earned a Big Ten player of the week honor and was finding a groove on offense. Usually, this would limit a team’s chances to play at a high level, but Nebraska’s strength is in its depth. Junior Ally Batenhorst stepped in and helped the Huskers keep cruising.
Oct. 21 — The Match of the Century
Another monumental event that featured the top two ranked teams, which were both undefeated. The match lived up to the hype as the No. 2 Huskers escaped with a five-set victory over No. 1 Wisconsin after facing match point in the fourth set. Beason rose to the occasion with 21 kills and earned national player of the week honors the following week. Murray once again delivered in the clutch with seven kills on nine swings in the fifth set. With the win, Nebraska moved to the top of the polls.
Nov. 3 — Reverse Sweep at Penn State
The Nittany Lions controlled the first two sets of the match. However, Nebraska quickly turned the match around and wasn’t threatened in the next two sets. The Huskers looked like they would cruise again in the fifth set before Penn State rallied. Beason and Murray once again delivered in the clutch to keep Nebraska perfect. Beason started to gain traction as Big Ten Player of the Year with 27 kills on a .426 hitting percentage.
Nov. 19 — Big Ten Champions
After Wisconsin lost back-to-back matches, Nebraska clinched sole possession of the league title with a sweep at Iowa. This marked NU’s first league championship since 2017. The Huskers celebrated with hats, shirts and a locker room dance party. The joy and happiness from the group were palpable as they checked off the first of their major goals for the year.
Nov. 24 — First Loss of the Season
In the rematch, Wisconsin scored its revenge with a sweep. While the score was lopsided, the play was not. Nebraska had chances in the first two sets, and even had two set points in the second, but couldn’t close. Then the Badgers went into beast mode in the third set. The loss might fuel the Huskers to set up a third match in the national championship match.
Nov. 26 — No. 1 Overall Seed
The Huskers are rewarded for a season of excellence with the top overall seed. There wasn’t much drama to the proceedings. NU was No. 1 by most polls and metrics even after its first loss. The Huskers will stay home for the first two weekends of the tournament as they seek NU’s sixth national championship.
After a season of dominating wins and a near-perfect record, Nebraska was rewarded with a drama-free Selection Sunday.
The Huskers (28-1, 19-1 Big Ten) didn’t have to wait long to learn their fate as they were the first team announced on the selection show on ESPN as the No. 1 overall seed Sunday evening.
NU also learned its opponents for the postseason in short order. It will open on Friday against Long Island University, which won the Northeast Conference tournament.
“My freshman year, we were ranked 10th, and we were kind of waiting the whole time to see,” junior outside hitter Ally Batenhorst said. “It was just kind of nice to just immediately know exactly where we stand and just have that moving forward.”
The top four overall seeds are Nebraska, Stanford, Wisconsin and Pitt. Those schools will host regionals the second weekend of the tournament should they advance.
LIU went 13-18 and finished fourth in the NEC with a 9-5 record. The Sharks won the NEC tournament by knocking off Sacred Heart and Fairleigh Dickinson.
The other first-round matchup in Lincoln is Missouri (17-12) vs. Delaware (24-4), with the winner playing NU or LIU on Saturday evening at the Devaney Center. The Tigers return to Lincoln after playing second-round matches against NU in the second round in 2018 and 2019.
“We have lots of good matchups coming up,” junior co-captain Merritt Beason said. “We’ve worked really hard this entire season and since January as a team to be in the position that we’re in. So we’re really, really excited to get started.”
If Nebraska advances to the second weekend, it will host regional matches for the first time since 2016, the last time the Huskers were the top seed. NU advanced to the national semifinal that year before falling to Texas.
“I think we just kind of have a lot of confidence, obviously being No. 1, and we obviously had a really good Big Ten season this year,” Batenhorst said. “This group comes in every day in practice, and just has that mindset of we’re going for it, especially in the postseason.”
NU coach John Cook said staying home through the final four provides a logistical advantage. NU doesn’t have to worry about making travel arrangements, plus it gets the home court treatment.
“We sleep in our own beds and our fans get to see this team, and I think they’ve been a huge factor for this group,” Cook said.
The Huskers’ region has a heavy SEC flavor. In addition to Missouri, Kentucky earned the No. 2 seed in NU’s quadrant, while Arkansas is the third seed and Florida is fourth.
Nebraska defeated Kentucky 3-1 when they met on Sept. 17, but the Wildcats are a different team than the first meeting after going 16-1 in the SEC. Arkansas tied for second and has only lost to three teams this year – twice to Wisconsin, twice to Kentucky and once to Georgia.
The Gators (18-9) tailed off as the season went on after All-American setter Alexis Stucky got hurt but scored wins over Stanford, Minnesota and Penn State in the first two weekends. Opposite Kennedy Martin is one of the top freshmen averaging 4.35 kills per set.
The SEC is sending the most teams into the postseason with eight, while the Big 12 got seven teams in. The Big Ten qualified five as did the ACC and Pac-12.
Nebraska built a strong resume in the nonconference, playing six conference champions who are in the NCAA field, including Utah State (Mountain West regular season), SMU (American), Nebraska-Omaha (Summit tournament), Creighton (Big East season and tournament), Stanford (Pac-12) and Kentucky (SEC). In addition to Stanford and Kentucky, SMU and Utah State earned seeds.
Only three of NU’s nonconference opponents didn’t make the postseason. Lipscomb went 21-8 and 14-2 in the ASUN, finishing second in the regular season and tournament. Long Beach State lost to Hawaii in the Big West title game, and Kansas State was one of the first eight teams left out. LBSU and the Wildcats each beat Texas, while KSU also knocked off BYU twice.
“We’ve had a lot of great competitions and a lot of the teams we have already played are in the tournament,” Batenhorst said. “It goes to show how strong our schedule has been this year and how that has prepared us really well moving into postseason.”
All four of the participants of Volleyball Day in Nebraska made their postseason. In addition to Nebraska, Nebraska-Omaha qualified for its first postseason appearance by winning the Summit League. Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State each made the Division II tournament.
Creighton, the third Division I program in the state, received the No. 3 seed in Pitt’s region. The Bluejays will host the first two rounds and open with Colgate. Sixth-seed Utah State and Minnesota also play in Omaha.
Cook was excited to see all the other volleyball programs reach the postseason. He said when Omaha first reclassified to Division I, NU was reluctant to schedule them because of the RPI hit. However, Mavs coach Matt Buttermore has built a solid program that will play for the first time in December.
“Whenever I speak, I brag about volleyball in this state, and there’s going to be a day where all three Division I teams will make the tournament,” Cook said. “Nebraskans have a lot to be proud of. We are the volleyball state.”
MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska’s lone loss of the season? That’s so yesterday.
The Huskers wiped their memories of any ill feelings, sour taste and leftover regrets of the sweep against Wisconsin on Friday night and rebounded with a 25-19, 25-18, 21-25, 25-23 win against Minnesota in front of 5,268 fans Saturday night at Maturi Pavilion to close the regular season.
Freshman setter Bergen Reilly said the No. 1-ranked Huskers stuck to their mantra of one game at a time and not looking back.
“There are things we can learn from yesterday, but in the end, we knew that today was another big match and we didn’t want to overlook them and just be like, ‘Oh, we already have the one seed or whatever,’” Reilly said. “We can learn things and we move on. We forget about it.”
With the victory, Nebraska (28-1, 19-1 Big Ten) made a solid case for the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. It finished with one regular season loss – one fewer than anyone else in the nation. The Huskers will learn their fate Sunday at 5 p.m. when the tournament selection show airs on ESPN.
Against the Gophers, NU started quickly. After Minnesota tied the first set at 5-all, the Huskers won five of the next six points. U of M closed to two points later in the set, but NU responded with three straight points, including a solo stuff by Reilly that was followed by another block by Reilly and Bekka Allick.
Merritt Beason took over the second set as she put up nine kills on 13 swings plus a block and ace serve. For the match, the junior opposite finished with 21 kills for a .302 hitting percentage and four blocks.
NU coach John Cook said Beason took things into her own hands to ensure the Huskers wouldn’t suffer another setback.
“She was not happy that we didn’t win last night,” he said. “As a leader, she wanted to step up and lead the team and that’s the best way you can do it.”
Nebraska looked poised to end the match with a sweep, but a kill by Minnesota defensive specialist Zeynep Palabiyik on an overpass changed the momentum. The Huskers were leading 17-13 before that point, but the Gophers went on a 4-0 run to tie the set. After trading side outs, Minnesota closed out the frame with another hot streak, scoring the final five points of the set.
“We missed an overpass. If we hit that thing, the game is probably over,” Cook said. “Then we make three hitting errors and we just kind of imploded. That’s what happens when you give the other team an easy out. They ran with it and we couldn’t get it back.”
Allick decided to take matters into her own hands in the fourth set, becoming responsible for the first six points with a kill and three blocks while giving Minnesota a pair of points on two hitting errors.
Allick, who recorded six blocks in the set and tallied 10 for the match to go with her eight kills, said NU needed to take control of the match after going with the flow in the third set.
“Especially after last night, it was kind of like spiraling,” Allick said. “The crowd started to get more into it. So after the third set, my biggest thing was to check on what we were doing and we just adjust. They obviously made some adjustments – their defense started to pick way up and started killing more balls. We just had to adjust.”
The Husker block came up huge again late in the fourth set. NU appeared to lead 24-19 after an Ally Batenhorst kill, but a successful challenge gave Minnesota new life. The Gophers won four of the next five points before Reilly and Andi Jackson stuffed Taylor Landfair to end the match.
Batenhorst and Harper Murray each finished with 13 kills. Murray added 17 digs and three ace serves. Five Huskers reached double-digit digs as Reilly added 13 digs to go with her 45 assists while libero Lexi Rodriguez added 10 digs and seven assists.
McKenna Wucherer led Minnesota with 16 kills, but also committed 10 hitting errors. Landfair tallied 14 kills and 10 blocks. U of M hit .184 for the match.
The Gophers (16-12, 12-8) will also await their fate on the selection show. They finished fifth in the Big Ten but have wins over Baylor and Oregon.
“Minnesota is much improved from the first time we played and they’ve been playing great,” Cook said. “They’ve been playing at a really high level tonight and we had to play at a really high level.”
Nebraska’s quest for an unblemished record ended on Friday afternoon during the final week of the regular season at the hands of its long-time nemesis, Wisconsin.
The Badgers’ offense proved too much for top-ranked NU as they hit .357 for the match and made all the clutch plays to earn a sweep. In the end, No. 5 UW scored a 25-22, 28-26, 25-16 sweep at the UW Field House.
NU coach John Cook said his Huskers played better on Friday than during a five-set victory over the Badgers on Oct. 21, but they struggled in end-of-set situations. He said now they have a real-life example of what it takes to win big matches instead of just listening to him in practice.
“It was a great learning and teaching opportunity for these guys,” Cook said. “I’m giving Wisconsin all the credit. They made the plays when it mattered and they got it done in those first two games when the game was on the line.”
The Badgers (25-3, 16-3) extended their home winning streak over Nebraska to eight matches. The last time the Huskers won in the UW Field House was in 2013.
While Nebraska snapped a 10-match skid against the Badgers last month, UW coach Kelly Sheffield said UW didn’t set a goal to end the Huskers’ perfect season. The Badgers were worried about righting their ship after losing two of their past three matches.
However, they did want to avenge their loss from earlier this year.
“We were able to go back and realize that we had unfinished business,” senior setter MJ Hammill said.
The Huskers (27-1, 18-1) had chances early.
Nebraska jumped to a 5-1 lead and was in control for most of the first set, but Wisconsin chipped away.
With the score tied 19-all, the Badgers won a crucial challenge in the first set. After a rally ended in a Harper Murray kill, Sheffield had a discussion with the down official before pulling his green card to trigger a replay review. The official determined NU setter Bergen Reilly had touched the ball as Badger outside hitter Sarah Franklin was going for an attack, which resulted in an illegal back-row block and a Wisconsin point.
Sheffield said he hesitated to challenge the play after losing one earlier in the set. Had he been wrong, UW would not have any more for the remainder of the match.
“You got to make sure that your players aren’t begging,” he said. “Hope is not a strategy, and she felt pretty certain. In that situation, you better be going with what the players are saying.”
That reversal gave the Badgers their first lead of the set and was part of a 7-1 run that erased an 18-15 Nebraska advantage. Franklin delivered three more kills down the stretch to help the Badgers take the first set.
The Huskers built another lead in the second set and were up 22-19 after five straight points, including three kills and a block by Murray, plus an ace from Maisie Boesiger.
Wisconsin stormed back with a 4-0 run, but Murray, who recorded nine of her team-high 15 kills in the second set, recorded a kill to fight off the first set point and then fired an ace to give NU the advantage.
Anna Smrek and Franklin delivered in the clutch for the Badgers with kills to prevent the Huskers from winning the set. The Badgers prevailed by scoring the final three points.
The Huskers led 6-5 in the third set, but UW won eight of the next 11 rallies. Later, the Badgers added six straight points as their offense took over. The Badgers hit .593 with 17 kills and just one hitting error.
Smrek scored 18 kills on a .378 hitting percentage for the match while Franklin added 16 kills at a .424 clip. Sheffield credited the defense for keeping rallies alive as Franklin and libero Julia Orzol each recorded 12 digs.
The Badgers also recorded five aces, including two by Hammill, after not getting one in the first meeting.
“They’re an incredible passing team,” Hammill said. “Their offense is really, really hard to stop and it’s even harder to stop when they’re in-system. In order to slow a team down, you want to be putting good, hard serves into good places.”
For the Huskers, junior outside hitter Ally Batenhorst recorded seven of her 11 kills in the second set and finished with a .424 hitting percentage. Junior Merritt Beason also tallied 11 kills.
NU managed the big Wisconsin block better in the rematch after the Badgers recorded 18 blocks in Lincoln. UW finished with six stuffs, and the Huskers tooled off and tipped over the Badger front row.
The Huskers hit .243 for the match as Reilly tallied 32 assists and a team-high 10 digs. Libero Lexi Rodriguez recorded eight digs and eight assists.
The middle blockers were largely a nonfactor as Bekka Allick and Andi Jackson each totaled three kills on eight swings while committing a combined five errors.
Cook credited the struggle in the middle to subpar passing.
“We couldn’t get the ball to the middle tonight,” Cook said. “When we did, it just wasn’t in rhythm. Part of that is when you’re not passing consistently, it’s hard to get that rhythm going.”
While the Huskers were disappointed in the setback, they were focused on the bigger picture.
Rodriguez said NU still has much to accomplish this season and isn’t defined by one loss.
“It’s better to happen now than two weeks from now,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve done so many great things this season. We just had to go back to thinking about how we were able to get those big wins over teams and then just carry that on from there. I mean, you can’t win them all.”
Nebraska has one more chance to prove its mettle on Saturday against Minnesota, which swept Illinois on Friday. Rodrigeuz said she is eager to return to the court for the regular season finale.
“It will be good to bounce back from it and try to prove what we’ve learned from tonight’s game,” she said. “Hopefully we can build some momentum going into the postseason.”
Friday’s match will reverberate across the nation as it will be one of the final data points the NCAA selection committee has before announcing the bracket on Sunday afternoon.
Nebraska is well positioned for a top-four seed, allowing it to host regionals during the tournament’s second weekend. Cook believes the Badgers should be one too.
“Hell, yeah,” Cook said. “It would be a crime if they are not.”
LINCOLN – Bookend 13-10s have put an early end to another Nebraska football season.
Three of Nebraska’s seven losses, in fact, were by scores of 13-10. The final one helped extend a streak that, four weeks ago, Husker fans were certain was about to end.
Unless Nebraska finds a way to sneak into a bowl game with a 5-7 record – hey, it happened in 2015 – Husker fans won’t be making bowl plans for the seventh consecutive season after Friday’s gut-punch 13-10 loss to Iowa.
Nebraska opened the season with a 13-10 loss at Minnesota. Then the Huskers let critical end-of-game mistakes lead to a 13-10 loss to Maryland on Nov. 11 before completing the 13-10 trifecta with the loss to the Hawkeyes.
It’s the third time in nine seasons Nebraska went into its last game of the regular season against the Hawkeyes with a 5-6 record and needing a win to advance to a postseason game – and failing.
Nebraska has been within one victory of reaching the six-win threshold for nearly a month since defeating Purdue 31-14 on Oct. 28 to improve to 5-3.
But four bitter losses later, the Huskers are left picking up the pieces of what might have been and wondering just how much has improved since the forgettable Scott Frost era. And the forgettable Mike Riley era. And the … well you get the picture.
The past eight seasons – a stretch that includes the arrival and departure of both Frost and Riley and the first year of coach Matt Rhule – the Huskers are 39-55 (.415) with no appearances in the Big Ten championship game and bowl bids only in 2015 and 2016 under Riley.
With the reality of the Iowa loss still settling in his stomach like spoiled cranberries and second-day stuffing, Rhule was already turning the page in his post-game news conference. What else was there to say?
“It will all be fixed,” Rhule said. “It’ll all be improved. Maybe this is about where we are right now. Some people see it from the outside and they think, ‘Wow, they really messed that up.’ I see it as, ‘Man, these guys, how many guys go down and continue to put guys in, and we just battle, right?’”
It may well be true that there are myriad reasons to believe Rhule and his staff have a genuine plan to bring Nebraska back to relevance. But that’s a column for another day.
The way 2023 ended was crushing. Nebraska finished 1-5 in one-score games. Four came in the final one-third of the schedule. Iowa sneaking back across the border after kicking a winning field goal after intercepting a Husker pass was the capper.
“We had our chances down the stretch,” Rhule said. “We just weren’t able to make it happen. The things that affected us all year (penalties, turnovers), affected us.”
Friday’s game was tied 10-10 deep into the fourth quarter when Nebraska looked in good shape after converting a pair of third down plays on a drive that began at the 50-yard line.
Ten plays later the Huskers had moved the ball to the Iowa 26 and had taken just more than six minutes to do it. Freshman kicker Tristan Alvano, who made a 44-yard field goal in the third quarter to tie the score, missed a 44-yard attempt at the north goal post that would have given NU its first lead of the game. At that point there was 5:07 left on the clock.
The two teams then traded punts before swapping interceptions in the final 55 seconds. Just two plays after Hawkeyes quarterback Deacon Hill had his final pass of the game intercepted by Tommi Hill, NU quarterback Chubba Purdy had his last pass of the season picked off by Ethan Hurkett and returned 10 yards to the Nebraska 37 with 15 seconds to play.
A 22-yard run to the right by Iowa running back Leshon Williams moved the ball to NU’s 15 before Hill took the next snap, moved to his left and took a knee at the 20 with the ball centered for Hawkeyes kicker Marshall Meeder to make the game-winning 38-yard kick as time expired.
The interception had served up the win to Iowa on a silver platter.
“I think everybody felt good and it wasn’t exactly the cleanest field goal I’ve ever seen,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It looked like the snap might have been a little low, but it made it through the uprights and that’s all that counts.”
Meeder was called in for the game-winning attempt after starter Drew Stevens had two first-half field goal attempts blocked by Nebraska’s starting defensive tackles. The first was a 30-yard attempt knocked down by Ty Robinson with 2:24 remaining in the first quarter.
Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Robinson’s linemate, Nash Hutmacher, swatted away a 24-yard attempt with just 50 seconds remaining before halftime.
“On the first one when they got the penalty I noticed that it was low,” Robinson said. “I just told them to take three steps and jump as high as you can. I got one and Nash got the second one.”
Despite those two blocks, the 10-2 Hawkeyes went into the intermission with a 10-7 lead. Following a scoreless first quarter, Hill ended a seven-play, 51-yard drive with a 1-yard QB sneak that produced Iowa’s lone touchdown of the game. The PAT by Stevens put Iowa ahead 7-0.
Between the two kicks that were blocked, Stevens made a 28-yard field goal with 5:28 remaining in the second quarter to give Iowa a 10-0 lead. Nebraska answered that with a 66-yard touchdown pass from Purdy to freshman Jaylen Lloyd three plays later.
NU’s next game isn’t for another 40 weeks when Texas-El Paso comes to Lincoln to open the season on Aug. 31, 2024. Games against Colorado, Northern Iowa and Illinois might give the Huskers a chance to get off to a fast start in Rhule’s second season. That’s the hope anyway, for those who want to toss 2023 into the trash bin.
“We’re just not quite there yet and that’s why I’m so proud of these guys,” Rhule said. “They battle, they fight and we don’t make excuses. We just come back. I think that’s the key.”