By Lincoln Arneal
CENTRAL CITY — Harper Murray will return to Michigan for her senior prom in a few weeks.
But on Saturday in Nebraska’s spring match in Central City, the Husker freshman outside hitter was the belle of the ball.
Murray displayed exceptional athleticism, big swings and solid passing in her Husker debut finishing with a match-high 12 kills and a .391 hitting percentage. Behind solid play from Murray and five other newcomers, NU swept Wichita State 25-20, 25-21, 25-21 in front of 2,096 fans in a sold-out Bison Activity Dome.
Murray, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, said she’s been looking forward to the match since she enrolled early at Nebraska in January.
“There is still a little bit of nerves, you know, it’s my first game technically,” Murray said. “But I thought having all the upperclassmen with me who’ve been in that situation before really helped calm me down, so credit to them for being so confident and helping all of us through it.”
Murray, who was named the top recruit in the nation by VolleyballMag.com this month, only played the first two sets but earned the start in her first public outing with the Huskers.
While her hitting stole the show in the Huskers’ only public spring match, NU coach John Cook said he went with Murray because of her back-row play.
“She’s been performing at a high level very consistently, and she’s been passing well,” he said. “If you’re going to play six rotations, you got to be able to pass and she’s done a great job managing all the skills and you can see she can get some big kills.”
Murray was not the only freshman who left a positive impression in her unofficial debut. Bergen Reilly set the final two frames and tallied 28 assists as she helped NU hit .352 during her time on the court.
Middle blocker Andi Jackson only played the third set but finished with seven kills on eight swings with a block. Opposite Caroline Jurevicious amassed three kills and two blocks in the third set.
Defensive specialist Laney Choboy made one of the plays of the game when she laid out to save a ball from going off the court. Setter Kennedi Orr then sent a freeball over, and NU recorded a block to end the rally.
“The freshmen came in and it was never like they acted like freshmen,” said Orr, now a junior. “They just came right in, they wanted a spot and they wanted to work hard. They wanted to be here, so yeah, I would say that the dynamic of the gym is everyone wants to play, we want to compete and we want to win.”
Cook said the challenge for the freshmen is to refine their skills so they don’t rely on talent only but make the proper plays. For instance, he said teammates sometimes shut Jackson down in spring practices because they knew the shots she would hit. The challenge going forward for all the freshmen is being more creative and consistent.
“Not relying just on athletic ability, but just learning how to be really good volleyball players and do it every day,” Cook said. “That’s been the biggest jump they’ve made and I’ve challenged some of them on that.”
Another newcomer, junior Florida transfer Merritt Beason, also made an impact. She racked up five kills and four digs and was selected by teammates to address the standing-room-only crowd following the match.
Cook said Beason was a little nervous for the match and struggled early with a couple of hitting errors early in the first set.
“She’s played in some big matches, but again, the first time you play in this environment and play for Nebraska, she was trying a little hard tonight and finally got herself down a little bit and she did great,” Cook said. “She’s a great addition to our program.”
While the newbies made an impression, the returnees also showed out well for the Huskers.
Sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick racked up eight kills on 10 errorless swings to go with six blocks. Junior Lindsay Krause started the game as an outside hitter and finished with four kills and three aces in two sets of action. Ally Batenhorst played the final set and notched five kills at a .364 clip. Orr amassed 15 assists in the first set.
Sophomore Maggie Mendelson added three kills and a block, while classmate Hayden Kubik also tallied a kill.
Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez led the Huskers with 12 digs, while Choboy added seven.
Wichita State was led by 10 kills from junior outside hitter Barbara Koehler. Senior setter Izzi Strand added seven kills, 23 assists and 10 digs.
The game marked another sellout for the Huskers’ spring game outside its home arena.
The players talked glowingly about the reception they received from the community both on Friday and during the match. Fans started to line up at the doors at 11 a.m. Some fans used the morning to tailgate and others waited in their cars.
“Obviously, there’s no place like Nebraska and it was just super cool that we finally got to experience that,” Reilly said. “All the freshmen coming in and Merritt, it’s just an unreal place and we couldn’t have had a better spring game.”
Orr said she felt like a celebrity when she had to run out to the bus to get her warm-up shirt and make her way through the lines. When she came out 75 minutes before the match for setter warm ups, the gym was already packed.
“You have to be grateful because when you walk out, everyone’s clapping and cheering you on,” she said. “You got to take that moment and just run with it and be super grateful for the people that are cheering you on and not take it as pressure.”
After the match, players signed autographs for more than two hours after the final point as almost everyone in attendance lined up to get volleyballs, programs and posters signed.
Cook said he was impressed with Central City’s new facility, which was completed last fall. He said the locker rooms were nicer than some of the ones they use during Big Ten play.
“This felt like it’s a Final Four in a way, just with the gifts, everything we went to and how it was all set up,” Cook said. “The court was great, the venue was great. I think everybody had a great seat tonight. … It just had a really big-time feeling.”