By Lincoln Arneal
On Saturday morning, Harper Murray’s phone buzzed.
It was a text message from Nebraska assistant coach Jaylen Reyes to Murray and the other NU freshmen. Reyes reminded the group of a promise they made on their official visit a year earlier where they witnessed the Huskers lose to Wisconsin.
That wouldn’t be happening again.
Murray and her classmates helped Nebraska topple the top-ranked Badgers Saturday night in five sets and put the rest of the nation on notice that NU is a national title favorite.
“We didn’t even play our best, and we still pulled out a win,” the 6-foot-2 outside hitter said. “The freshmen, we know we have big roles on this team and we have to prove that by just having that mentality and going up every day just swinging.”
The freshmen did their part to put the second-ranked Huskers on the top of the Big Ten standings midway through the season. Wisconsin relied upon two fifth-year players, four seniors, two juniors and a sophomore, but the Huskers’ youth won the day.
Murray finished with a flurry with seven of her 14 kills coming in the decisive fifth set to go with 15 digs.
After struggling to handle Wisconsin’s block for most of the match, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, native carried the Huskers down the stretch, taking some of the most important swings of the match. Murray delivered a kill when the Huskers faced match point in the fourth set. Then she terminated three straight rallies that put NU on top 14-12 in the fifth set.
She wasn’t the only freshman to help deliver on their promise. Middle blocker Andi Jackson recorded eight kills and four blocks. Setter Bergen Reilly amassed 50 assists, 17 digs, four kills and three blocks. Defensive specialist Laney Choboy tallied 11 digs.
“All of our freshmen stepped up at very big moments during that match,” junior Merritt Beason said. “They all just have a ton of confidence in themselves and they know what they bring to the game.”
With Wisconsin leading 3-2 in the first set, Jackson demonstrated this was a different NU team than in previous years. The freshman middle blocker ran a quick attack and slammed home a kill before the Badger block could get set up.
While the Huskers’ grit, determination and resilience helped fuel the rally, their speed and athleticism was evident on the court. The Badgers had trouble keeping up early against NU’s energy.
Once UW’s block adjusted, Reilly had to work to put her hitters in a better position. Reilly also teamed up with Jackson to provide the final point that snapped a 30-set winning streak by Wisconsin with a block to take the first set.
Choboy was the Huskers’ best server, accounting for 13 points on her serve, including critical stretches in each of the sets NU won.
NU coach John Cook said Choboy was his most valuable player of the match. Beason called her a constant source of energy.
“She’s a firecracker,” Beason said. “She lights the fire and gives us the energy that we need in those moments. She’s a very emotional player and she brings it day in and day out.”
Behind all of the freshmen is John Cook. The longtime NU coach placed his trust in the newcomers early this year and set them loose. They’ve rewarded his belief in them and become one of the most fun teams he’s been around.
As a result, Nebraska has exorcized the ghosts that have haunted them. The Huskers won at Stanford after losing their last five matches to the Cardinal dating back to 2008. They made it through the nonconference undefeated for the first time since 2016.
Then came the big one on Saturday,
NU broke a 10-match losing streak to its conference rival. The win put the Huskers in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten title race and upped the stakes for next month’s Black Friday return match.
But for now, Cook and the players are enjoying the moment.
Beason said Cook set NU up for success by making the task more manageable. Instead of falling victim to the hype of the most significant regular season match, Cook kept the players focused on the midweek matchup against Northwestern and then instilled belief in them for the Wisconsin match.
After the rest of the Huskers went to the locker room, Beason remained on the court with Cook to do a post-match television interview. While waiting, she watched Cook celebrate with some of the 1,200 students who attended the match, donning one of the red cowboy hats students were given for the match.
Beason said the scene was surreal and the “coolest thing ever.” She plans to make all her teammates watch the celebration video to soak it all up.
“I think those are just the moments that make all the sacrifices that we make worth it,” she said. “It was very special.”