By Lincoln Arneal
With one of his top outside hitters out, Nebraska coach John Cook could have played it safe and used the same lineup that defeated No. 17 Creighton.
However, Cook mixed up the lineup again and added another wrinkle to a deep and talented NU squad.
With sophomore outside hitter Ally Batenhorst out with an abdominal injury, Cook inserted freshman Maggie Mendelson on the right side and flipped Lindsay Krause back to the left pin. The result was another sweep as the second-ranked Huskers dispatched Long Beach State 25-16, 25-22, 25-14 Saturday afternoon at the Devaney Center.
Mendelson, who had been training as a middle blocker, practiced just once as an opposite before Saturday’s match. However, she had played the position with her club team before coming to NU.
While her stat line of four kills and two blocks weren’t overwhelming, Cook said Mendelson stepped up and performed well on short notice. Cook wanted to play Mendelson at the right pin to create matchup problems and a big block for opponents to deal with.
“I actually talked to her when we were recruiting her about potentially putting her in the opposite position,” Cook said. “That kid’s a competitor. You can have her do anything. You saw her compete and make all those kind-of-funky plays at the net. She’s flying around, popping one-armed balls up. She competes.”
It took a little time for Nebraska to get into the match as Long Beach took an 11-9 lead in the first set after three straight hitting errors. However, NU settled into its offense and didn’t commit another miscue for the rest of the set. With the Huskers leading 15-14, the Huskers won nine of the next 10 rallies, including six straight points served by junior setter Anni Evans.
With the second set tied at 10-all, Nebraska ran off four straight points thanks to three Long Beach errors and a kill from sophomore opposite Whitney Lauenstein. The Long Beach got as close as two at 24-22, but Madi Kubik slammed home her 1,000 career kill. The senior outside hitter, who finished with eight kills, is the 24th Husker player to reach that milestone.
The Huskers jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the third set to take control. After notching just two blocks in the first two sets, they recorded three during that run. NU finished with seven blocks, including four from Lauenstein and senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord.
Lauenstein also paced the NU offense with 12 kills on a .381 hitting percentage.
Freshman middle blocker Bekka Allick added eight kills and three blocks. Several kills came on the slide play, which they had not run in a match since they switched to a two-setter system. With Mendleson in the lineup, it opened up the opportunity to run the attack.
“We saw an advantage and we really wanted to abuse that as much as we could,” Allick said. “I felt really confident in that role, and so I’m excited to have it back. It’s kind of terrifying having both Maggie on the B-(hit in the middle) and me on the slide.”
Evans finished with 17 assists, while Nicklin Hames added 15 and nine digs. Lexi Rodriguez led the defense with 15 digs.
Long Beach finished hitting .078 led by nine kills from Natalie Glenn. Former Nebraska player Callie Schwarzenbach finished with one kill and three blocks.
After the final point, the match turned into a family reunion with lots of hugs and tears. Several Huskers returned from the locker room to take a picture with Schwarzenbach and former NU associate head coach Tyler Hildebrand.
Hildebrand has an extensive volleyball resume from his playing days as an All-American setter, the men’s national team and coaching the United States beach team in the Olympics. Still, he said Nebraska holds a special place for him.
He started to tear up almost immediately after they got off the airplane in Omaha. Hildebrand enjoyed the reception he received from the crowd during the starting lineup and all the support he’s received from the fans even though he’s on the other bench.
“That’s part of what is special about this place and the years I’ve spent here with everyone. There are two places that are emotional for me – Long Beach and Nebraska,” Hildebrand said.
“I’ve played or coached in every gym in the world and there’s not a gym that’s like this, with how (the fans) support.”
He wasn’t the only one getting emotional this weekend. NU coach John Cook said his team was crying before the match and afterward as they reflected on the relationships they built with their former coach and teammate.
Lauenstein said they went to the Long Beach hotel on Friday night, hung Schwarzenbach’s lifter of the year poster on her door, and waited to surprise her. She said moments like that illustrate how much of last year’s theme of “Our roots run deep” still fits the program.
“It just shows how much of a family we are,” Lauenstein said. “No matter where you go and they’re always going to be, they’re always in our hearts. We love Tyler and Callie. We miss them a lot.”