By Lincoln Arneal
Each rally starts with a serve. For Nebraska’s serve-receive defense, the goal is to make sure it also doesn’t end there.
Led by seniors Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles and sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez, the fourth-ranked Huskers have been elite with their serve receive this season, allowing just 0.58 ace serves per set, best in the Big Ten.
The Huskers have not allowed any aces six times this season, which ties the most in the past decade. Only the 2015 (four times) and 2017 teams (six) have blanked an opponent more than twice in the past decade. This year’s NU squad is also ahead of the pace of the 2016 team, which allowed just 0.59 aces per set, the lowest in the past 10 seasons.
The latest victim of a Husker shutout was Maryland, which entered the match leading the Big Ten and 20th in the nation in aces per set. Coach John Cook said his team was motivated to make amends after a poor showing against Wisconsin.
“What was so disappointing about Wednesday night (in a loss to the Badgers) was passing is our bread and butter and we just didn’t do a great job of it,” Cook said after sweeping the Terrapins. “They were determined tonight to be a great passing team.”
Two of the teams with the most success serving against the Huskers – Wisconsin and Stanford – are the only two that have defeated them. The Badgers recorded a season-high six aces while Stanford tallied four.
The Huskers’ serve-receive prowess may contribute to the spate of errors committed by their opponents. Stanford, for instance, committed 23 errors. Opponents are missing 2.85 serves per set against Nebraska.
Kubik is the key to NU’s passing success on serves. She has received 458 serves (40 percent of NU’s total) and only allowed 15 aces. Knuckles and Rodriguez have each passed about a quarter of the time and have success rates of 95.4 percent and 97.8 percent, respectively.
While the defense features the same players – minus Keonilei Akana – as a year ago, Kubik and Rodriguez have each increased their passing rate.
“I think we’re all more comfortable back there and have a little more confidence and then even just playing next to each other, getting that year of experience with each other,” Rodriguez said. “I think now we know exactly which balls each person’s gonna take and we feel really confident to be next to each other.”
This year is more challenging than last year because some rotations only feature two NU passers in serve receive. Rodriguez said it could be easier with one fewer passer to worry about, but against the tough servers, it helps to have one more person to cover the court.
Nebraska will face a different challenge against Indiana. The Hoosiers (13-11, 6-6) will visit the Devaney Center on Wednesday for an 8 p.m. match.
Indiana includes several jump servers, which the Husker have yet to face much this season. They are led by Camryn Haworth, who has a team-high 33 aces this season. While jump serving is more common in men’s volleyball, it takes the right combination of power and skill to make the risk worth it in the women’s game.
“It’s pretty rare to see jump servers these days,” Cook said. “Typically, in the women’s game, they can’t hit it hard enough to stress, but Indiana has two players that hit it hard enough.”
Even though NU doesn’t see a lot of jump servers, they prepare for it weekly with their male graduate managers. The Huskers have faced several other players who have used jump serves this season, including Sarah Franklin of Wisconsin and Kashuana Williams of Penn State, but both opted against it versus NU.
Rodriguez said it takes buy-in from everyone to be the top-ranked defensive team in the nation.
“Defense is something that comes with a lot of effort and heart and so I think it’s something that we really pride ourselves in,” she said. “Just having that over every team in the country is really special because it’s a team effort as a whole and not just one person.”
COSTUME PARTY — The old John Cook might not have let players go through practice wearing costumes on Halloween. Now, he takes a deep breath and goes with the flow.
“It didn’t help me, but I guess they enjoyed it,” Cook said. “It seemed like it was hard for them to move, but I didn’t say anything.”
The Huskers didn’t plan to dress up for Monday’s practice, but after the managers inquired about it, they decided to go with it and threw together costumes in short order.
While they didn’t get approval from Cook ahead of time, they showed up at their usual start time dressed up. The outfits included basketball players, football players, a scarecrow, a cat and one player who wore a full-body green leotard.
They wore costumes for the entire practice, which presented some issues.
“It was kind of hard, but it was fun,” said Rodriguez, who borrowed the practice clothes from women’s basketball player Kendall Moriarty.
Cook said his favorite costume was Anni Evans as Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry. Whitney Lauenstein scored points with Cook with her take on Minnesota Vikings’ running back Dalvin Cook, strictly based on the name on the jersey.
Freshman Bekka Allick said the ability to have fun with costumes and accomplish what they needed shows the maturity and focus of the team.
“Yesterday was a reminder that we get to have this lifestyle,” Allick said on Tuesday. “We get to come into this facility where a lot of greats have played, and yet we’re out here wearing costumes, and we’re still competing really hard. We’re not letting balls drop just because of this or that. If it’s an issue, you need to go take it off. At the end of the day, we got to get work done. And so if you’re able to find that balance, then you can have a really good time.”
TOP BLOCK — Following a combined 16 blocks in two matches last week, NU senior Kaitlyn Hord now leads the nation in blocking with 1.65 stuffs per set.
Hord recorded seven against Wisconsin and then tied a season-high nine blocks against Maryland.
The players she moved ahead of were on the other side of the net as Danielle Hart of Wisconsin and Rainelle Jones of Maryland are averaging 1.63 blocks per set.
As a team, Nebraska ranks seventh in the nation with 2.83 blocks per set.
“We’re physical at every position. We have really good blockers,” Cook said. “We feel really good about that but we’re still working on it every day, trying to get better; trying to get our serving better, our floor defense better.”