15,797 Fans Watch NU Defeat CU in Five Sets

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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. 

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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.”

Nebraska faces No. 17 Creighton Wednesday

By Lincoln Arneal

Nebraska is used to playing in front of big crowds. 

The Huskers played in front of an NCAA record 18,755 spectators in the national championship match last year. They have been involved in 15 of the 20 largest crowds to watch a college volleyball match. NU hosts more than 8,000 people for every home match at the Devaney Center. 

However, it hits a little differently when Nebraska and Creighton meet for their annual regular season match. Senior Kenzie Knuckles said she had a lot of fun last year when the teams played, and always enjoys the in-state rivalry.

“It was super fun last year… feeling like the whole state of Nebraska was there,” she said. “We get that feeling at Devaney, but they’re all our fans. (I like) knowing that it’s like Nebraska versus Nebraska.”

The second-ranked Huskers and No. 17 Bluejays will renew their rivalry Wednesday at 5 p.m. at CHI Health Center Omaha. 

Nebraska was scheduled to host the in-state series this year, but with the Final Four scheduled for the CHI Center, NU coach John Cook fired off an email and the programs agreed to switch the venue. As a result, the Huskers will host Creighton in the next two seasons. 

During the 2018 match, the schools set a regular season record for attendance at 14,022. The record might be exceeded this year. As of Friday, Creighton had sold more than 13,000 tickets. 

“I think we thrive in big environments and big crowds,’ sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said. “To be up in that gym where our goal is to be back there in December, I think it’ll be a good environment for us and a good test because Creighton is a good team.”

The regular season record might be in danger next week as defending national champion Wisconsin is hosting Florida on Sept. 16 at the Kohl Center, which seats 17,230, and tickets are sold out. However, Cook is glad to see bigger crowds supporting volleyball no matter the venue.

“It’s good to challenge the fan base and keep building,” Cook said. “It’s great. If they break all these records then we may have to go to (Pinnacle Bank Arena) and make (NU Athletic Director) Trev (Alberts) happy.”

TO 6-2 OR NOT TO 6-2: Nebraska has used four combinations at setter in five matches this season. Sophomore Kennedi Orr has started twice, while junior Anni Evans started another match. They both shared setting duties with senior Nicklin Hames as part of a two-setter system. 

While the setter position might be the biggest difference for the offense, it isn’t the only criteria for Cook to base his decision on which system to run. He said he gets a 60-page scouting report on the Huskers after each match, which is full of trends and statistics. 

The 6-2 does cause a few defensive issues as the Huskers have two rotations where they only have Rodriguez and outside hitter Madi Kubik on serve receive. However, Cook said with Rodriguez, Knuckles, Hames and Kubik, they have the players to be exceptional.

“There’s no reason why it can’t be,” Cooks said. “We got moving parts and different players. We’ve been playing a lot of people so it might take a while to gel… We just have to maximize what we’ve got and figure out what’s best.”

While no team has won a national championship with a 6-2 system since Southern Cal in 2002, Cook doesn’t know why more teams haven’t won it since. Pitt made the national semifinal last year with two setters. 

Nebraska made the 2005 national championship match with a two-setter system with Maggie Griffin and Dani Busboom. The Huskers won the Big 12 title in 2010 with Lauren Cook and Sydney Anderson splitting setting duties. 

Cook said the biggest challenge is the immense talent and depth it takes to play at an elite level. The first step is to have enough outside hitters. Then teams need two good setters and can pass well.

“It does give you advantages because it’s hard to prepare for and we can be more creative offensively,” Cook said. “You’ve got three hitters in the front row all the time. We’ve done it in the past and had two great teams and when we did it.”

Teams might prefer the 5-1 because traditionally setters are leaders on the court and setting full-time allows them to get into a better rhythm. However, this year’s Nebraska team might be better set up to handle the lack of leadership from setter as its three captains are Knuckles, Kubik and Rodriguez, the latter two of which are on the court for every rotation. 

In the end, Cook said he doesn’t have a preference between the two. 

“Whatever one gives us the best chance to win,” he said. 

PROSPECT CALLED UP: Nebraska commit Bergen Reilly was called up to the senior national team last week to participate in the NORCECA Final Six Pan-Am Cup. She was needed after another setter backed out at the last minute because of COVID-19.

Reilly, who won the gold medal at the U19 Pan Am Cup, played the final nine points of the United States match against Mexico on Sunday. The Bishop O’Gorman Sioux Falls (S.D.) senior recorded three assists as she served and set for the US National Team to help them close out the victory. The US has matches every day this week before the tournament wraps up on Saturday.

Cook said having a high school player join the national team is rare but a special opportunity. 

“It’s kind of a big moment for a developing athlete. So it’s pretty cool,” Cook said.

Huskers Sweep Ole Miss: Banwarth Receives Warm Welcome

By Lincoln Arneal

Maybe the two-setter offense isn’t just a temporary experiment for Nebraska. 

The second-ranked Huskers ran a 6-2 for the second-straight match and produced another stellar offensive performance Saturday night in a 25-13, 25-23, 25-21 sweep over Ole Miss at the Devaney Center. 

NU (5-0) finished with a .330 hitting percentage with just nine errors after a .363 clip on Thursday night against Loyola Marymount. Last year, the Huskers hit .222 for the season. 

“I think we handled it really well,” Cook said about the switch to the new offensive system. “They do a pretty good job and we’ve only played two matches in it. We hit great numbers. You hit those numbers and you got a really good chance to win.”

The bigger challenges start next week when Nebraska plays at No. 17 Creighton and Long Beach State before taking on No. 12 Stanford and No. 16 Kentucky. 

Against the Rebels, senior Nicklin Hames and sophomore Kennedi Orr started as the setters. However, after she missed a few connections, Cook subbed in junior Anni Evans in the third set for Orr. 

Hames finished with 18 assists, Orr added five and Evens had four. 

Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez chipped in seven assists and a team-best nine digs. Because setters only play the back row, they have a better chance to dig attacks, which means Rodriguez handles setting duties. 

“All the hitters have trust in me that I’m gonna put up just as good of a ball as the setters do,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me to get more sets to them.”

Madi Kubik is probably a fan of the new system after she played two of the best consecutive matches in her career. Before this week, she had recorded seven matches with a hitting percentage above .400 and added two more. She finished 13 kills with just one error against Ole Miss and hit .455 for the week. 

She said with all the players going in and out, they have to focus on playing for each other and trust the setter, no matter who is the setter. 

“It takes a lot of pressure and headspace off of worrying about play and just being able to trust each other and try and focus on what’s happening,” Kubik said. “That’s what allowed us to play pretty good this weekend.”

After Nebraska blitzed Ole Miss in the first set, using runs of 6-0 and 7-0 to pull away for a 25-13 victory. The Rebels regrouped and put up a stiffer challenge in the next two sets. 

Ole Miss led 23-21 in the second set, but Whitney Lauenstein served out the last four points, the final two of which were kills by Kubik, to close out the set. 

Lauenstein hadn’t served in a match this season and only sparingly did last season. With Orr struggling to serve, Cook switched to the sophomore opposite in the second set. She came through for NU with an ace and tough serves on the final stretch. 

Cook said she fully trusted Lauenstein to deliver from the service line after serving great in practice. 

“She thumps it. She’s up there high and that thing is coming down,” he said. “She’s been serving great in practice. I’ve had a lot of confidence in letting her go and she did a nice job.”

In the third set, the Rebels tied the set at 19-all, but the Huskers closed strong with a kill from Lauenstein before she teamed up with Kaitlyn Hord for a block on the next play. 

Lauenstein finished with nine kills at a .350 clip to go with six blocks. Hord also recorded six blocks. 

Ole Miss finished with a .184 hitting percentage, led by 11 kills from Anna Bair. However, the Rebels struggled to serve with 15 errors.

The match also marked the return of former Husker player and assistant coach Kayla Banwarth. Before the match, she received a loud ovation from the crowd. 

“It was emotional and I didn’t think it was gonna be emotional,” she said. “I spent seven years of my life here so to be back and to be welcomed in that way was pretty special for me.”

Cook said he saw Banwarth wandering around Devenay earlier in the day reminiscing about her time at Nebraska. He said this trip would also help her team to see how much she poured into her time with the Huskers and won a national championship. 

Banwarth said she had no complaints about the weekend and was proud of how her team competed. Even though Ole Miss started the season 0-4, Banwarth hopes the tough tests they received will help them in SEC play.

“I’m just really, really grateful to be here,” she said. “I always feel an enormous amount of gratitude for Husker nation, and the welcome that me and my team received. So thanks to everyone for being so gracious to us while we’ve been here. That was fun. My girls had a blast. I know (0-4) is sometimes not very fun, but I’m happy when I see my girls competing hard and going toe to toe against Nebraska.”

Huskers Turn Close Game Into Runaway – Finally

By Steve Beideck

While there is still so much to fix, the big dose of success Nebraska eventually earned Saturday helped calm the collective nerves of an anxious Husker Nation.

Tied 7-7 at halftime with FCS foe North Dakota one week after coughing up a pair of 11-point leads in a gut-wrenching loss to Northwestern, a few boo-birds began chirping from the Memorial Stadium stands.

It was not near the extent of the 2007 boos, nor to the level that rang down near the end of the Mike Riley experiment in 2017, but it was noticeable from the crowd of 86,590. Still, In the end, the Huskers overwhelmed North Dakota 38-17 to even their record at 1-1.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost said that while the overall performance produced a mixed bag, the Huskers did snap a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season, the benefits of which outweigh the negatives.

“A lot of good and a lot of bad,” Frost said. “We had a lot better rhythm in the second half. It’s better to learn with a win than a loss. There are a lot of things we can fix and become a better football team.”

The outlook wasn’t good heading into the intermission, especially with the Fighting Hawks having their way against the Nebraska Blackshirts on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that tied the score just 13 seconds before the break.

That march by UND gave the Huskers one of the most lopsided time-of-possession deficits they have faced in a single half – 20:38 to 9:22. The Huskers only had four offensive possessions in the first 30 minutes.

And remember, this was an FCS foe, which has a limit of 63  “equilivancy” scholarships – which means they can be divided up between more than 63 players – compared to FBS schools that can offer 85 full rides.  

Things got tense when Nebraska stumbled after taking a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter and allowed the Fighting Hawks to rally and tie the game after NU QB Casey Thompson threw an interception deep in Nebraska’s own end which led to UND’s second touchdown.

After that, Nebraska began to dominate on both sides of the ball. The NU offense responded with a five-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 46-yard touchdown run by running back Anthony Grant.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior from Buford, Georgia, was Nebraska’s steadiest weapon throughout the entire game. Grant, who also scored Nebraska’s lone first half TD on a 19-yard run, led all players with 189 rushing yards on 23 carries.

Nebraska secured the victory with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns; one by running back Ajay Allen on a 14-yard run and the other on a 5-yard pass from Thompson to tight end Chancellor Brewington with 2:07 remaining in the game.

The Huskers finished with 437 yards of total offense. Thompson was 14-of-21 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. His other TD pass was a 1-yard toss to Nate Boerkircher that came on the sixth play of NU’s opening drive of the second half.

“Overall I thought the defense hung in there, but we can be better,” Frost said. “(There were) some dumb plays on special teams that I know are getting coached in the meetings. I’m listening to them.”

Still, Frost saw plenty of things to believe things will get better.

“My message to the team, I don’t mind sharing with you, it’s been an interesting campaign,” Frost said. “We have a lot of new guys on the team and on the staff. We’ve got some old guys who have battled through a lot of adversity and been a good team before and haven’t won.

“This team can be a great team, it’s not right now, and that was my message to them. That puts us in a perfect position to have the potential to be good but know that we have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to fix.”

Former Husker Banwarth brings her Southern charm to Lincoln

By Lincoln Arneal

For an Iowa native who spent most of her adult life living in Nebraska, Kayla Banwarth now feels comfortable living in the South. 

The Ole Miss coach said Oxford, Mississippi, feels like home because it reminds her of Lincoln, where the whole community rallies around the university and has a centralized social scene. 

Now, she has fully embraced the Southern charm. 

“ ‘Y’all’ has settled into my vocabulary quite nicely,” Banwarth said. “I’ll text it, and I’ll be like, ‘All right.’ I stopped fighting it a while ago.”

Banwarth, a former player and assistant coach at Nebraska will return to her old stomping grounds this weekend with a pair of matches in the Devaney Center. Ole Miss faces Loyola Marymount on Friday at 6 p.m. in a match with free admission before taking on the second-ranked Huskers Saturday at 7 p.m. 

Nebraska coach John Cook likes to welcome former assistants back to Devaney. He enjoys seeing people who used to be part of the program return and try to knock off the Huskers. 

“It’s pretty cool to see what our program has produced not only player-wise but coaching-wise, so we’re pretty proud of that,” Cook said. “Sometimes I think I’m not the best person to work for, but I push them and try to get them to get better and challenge them in other ways besides just being a coach. I think part of my responsibilities is to develop coaches.”

Banwarth started her coaching career in 2015 as a volunteer assistant with the Pepperdine men’s team. At the same time, she made the USA national team for the 2016 Olympics, where the Americans captured the bronze medal. 

The following year, Cook brought her back to the Huskers as a full-time assistant. When he first hired Banwarth, she had to sell him on her coaching prospects. Cook said she had a lot of confidence, knew the program and had some coaching experience. 

“We just thought let’s go for it and see what happens,” Cook said. “She was just coming off the Olympics when we hired her. I wanted to get a former player back here and she was available.”

However, he wasn’t convinced she’d ever be a head coach. During the first year with the Huskers, Cook had to prod Banwarth at times to speak up and share her thoughts. Although he might have been hard on her at times, Cook said he’s proud of what she’s accomplished at Ole Miss and called the turnaround one of the most impressive coaching jobs he has seen.

The weekend will also be a homecoming for Mississippi assistant Bre Henry, a graduate manager at Nebraska in 2017-18. 

Banwarth said they talked about where to take their team to show off their old hometown, but with a home football game on Saturday, the crowds limited their options. 

But Banwarth shouldn’t be in Lincoln this weekend by her own account. 

After taking over an Ole Miss program that hadn’t been to the NCAA or finished with a winning conference record since 2010, Banwarth faced a significant rebuilding project. 

Then, things got worse. The Rebels went 1-19 in her first year against an all-SEC schedule during the strange pandemic season. However, the former Nebraska player and assistant coach made major strides in the second season, and Banwarth thought they were ready for a bigger challenge. 

“I was not anticipating us to be ready to play a team like Nebraska anytime soon and to be in a place where I feel like we can at least come up and compete with that kind of team and maybe challenge them and surprise them a little bit. It is definitely way ahead of where I thought we would be in Year 3.”

The Rebels qualified for the NCAA tournament for the fourth time, but just like the previous three postseason trips, their stay ended in the first round with a loss. 

Ole Miss went undefeated in nonconference play last season but lost four of its first five conference matches. Banwarth said they weren’t ready for the competition they’d face weekly in the SEC. 

This year, Banwarth went about rectifying that. Ole Miss hosted No. 9 Georgia Tech and No. 17 Illinois during the season’s opening weekend. Despite going 0-2 in the first weekend, Banwarth said the level of competition would help Ole Miss reach the second round of the NCAA tournament. 

“We have to go and play the big dog,” Banwarth said. “We have to go and play teams that are going to challenge us and get us better.”

Because most of her volleyball experience happened at Nebraska, Banwarth doesn’t have much experience with rebuilding programs. She admitted she’d made a few mistakes but learned a lot through trial and error. 

When she took over, Banwarth was surprised by how little of being head coach actually involved coaching. She’s spent more of her time managing people and doing behind-the-scenes work. The most important part of turning the Rebels around was building a team culture based on respect and kindness. The other values are reflected in her personality of competitiveness, discipline and hard work. They also talk about communication, being a good teammate and building a family atmosphere. 

“We’re gonna take really good care of each other off the court,” Banwarth said. “On the court, at the same time, we’re gonna bust and work really hard in the gym.

Banwarth is also getting investment in the program from Ole Miss. She’s seen progress in little things like chartering a flight to Lincoln for the matches. The university has committed to her each season and the results are starting to show. 

While the turnaround at Ole Miss is impressive, Banwarth said she thinks about her unlikely journey from being a walk-on setter to a libero in the Olympics to being a head coach in her early 30s. She tries not to take anything for granted in her journey and is thankful for all the people who have helped her reach this point in her career. 

“It hits me like, ‘Holy cow, I’m already a coach in a Power Five conference.’ It’s pretty cool,” Banwarth said. “I don’t accomplish this without having worked for Coach Cook and playing for Coach Cook, having learned from the coaches I have worked with and having the people around me that I’ve had around like my staff right now – I love my staff. 

“The people that have worked with me in the past – there are so many people that are special to me that went into me being where I’m at right now. So it hits me that I’m a head coach and then I just really feel gratitude for all those people.”