By Lincoln Arneal
The power ponytail is here to stay.
The result has been transformative after Merritt Beason changed up her game-day hairstyle for the last two matches.
The junior opposite put up nine kills with a .350 hitting percentage Saturday as the No. 4 Huskers (7-0) swept Long Beach State 25-18, 25-8, 25-21 at the Devaney Center. On Wednesday, Beason recorded a season-best 17 kills versus Creighton.
“She’s proud of that,” Nebraska coach John Cook said of Beason’s new hairstyle. “She’s like a new woman.”
While the hairdo doesn’t fully explain the improvement, Beason said after coaches altered her approach in the preseason to start more inside, they moved her back out wider, which is a more natural attacking position for her.
“Having the ball come all the way over my shoulder is a little hard for me sometimes, and I’m not the best at it,” she said. “So it’s easier for me to come in at a wide angle. And so we made that switch again these past few games, and it’s been working really well.”
Nearly all the Huskers attacked with high efficiency against LBSU (3-4) with a season-best .393 hitting percentage.
Three freshmen led the way as setter Bergen Reilly recorded 32 assists and four kills. Harper Murray finished with a match-high 10 kills at a .333 clip. Middle blocker Andi Jackson added eight kills on 12 errorless swings and four blocks.
After the match, LBSU coach Tyler Hildebrand had high praise for the freshmen whom he helped recruit to the Huskers as NU’s associate head coach in 2021.
He said he spent a lot of time talking with Reilly during the recruiting process. Before the match, he chatted with her parents for five minutes.
“I’m not a prophet, but I said if she comes early, she’s going to be one of the best setters Nebraska has ever had,” he said. “Bergen can set any offense in the world. She’s not as good as an international setter right now because she’s young, but as far as setting the ball, she’s great.”
Hildebrand said he worked closely with Lauren Stivrins when she was a freshman and again in the latter years of her career. He once told the Husker All-American she was one of the best middle blockers of her generation.
He sees similarities in Jackson.
“Andi has a long season to go, but she’s as good as Lauren as a freshman offensively,” he said. “She’s tough to stop.”
He called Murray the best player in the 2023 class, and said all of them are doing what they expected them to do when convincing them to come to Nebraska.
“To do it this early is a little impressive,” he said.
While the NU freshmen highlighted the sweep, they weren’t the only ones to play well.
Junior outside hitter Ally Batenhorst played just the third set and terminated on six of her eight swings. Lindsay Krause and Bekka Allick played the first two sets and recorded four and three kills, respectively.
Junior setter Kennedi Orr made her season debut as a serving specialist. She scored seven points on her 12 serves. Cook said they are trying to find her a role to help the team win games, and she has improved serving after committing 27 service errors a season ago.
Reilly said she was even more impressed with Orr’s defense. She recorded five digs during her limited time on the court and made some pinpoint passes.
“She came in and made some huge digs in huge moments,” Reilly said. “That’s really hard to do coming off the bench and being cold. We gave her big props in the locker room after the game, and I think everyone should notice that, too.”
The Huskers struggled to serve early with six misses in the first set but rebounded with just four errors the rest of the match.
The defense was at its best in the second set, limiting Beach to just three kills as they committed 11 hitting errors. Freshman Laney Choboy highlighted the set with an 11-0 run.
“Our preparation was really good,” Cook said. “You saw how hard it was for Long Beach to kill balls on us.”
Hildebrand said he was disappointed LBSU couldn’t put up a more competitive match, but it meant a lot to return to Nebraska. During the starting lineup introductions, he received a hearty welcome from the crowd of 8,589.
He said he’s excited to see what the Huskers accomplish the rest of the year.
“I think that they’re one of the best teams that Nebraska has had in a long time,” he said.