By Lincoln Arneal
Another night, another lineup change for Nebraska.
The second-seeded Huskers reshuffled their starters as Whitney Launstein missed most of the practices this week with an illness. With Maggie Mendelson starting, they didn’t miss a beat and earned a 25-15, 25-9, 25-10 sweep over Delaware State in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night at the Devaney Center.
NU dominated the overmatched Hornets but will need to step up against Kansas, which upset No. 7 Miami 25-17, 25-18, 25-20 earlier Thursday.
Launstein was dressed, went through warmups and entered the match in the third set, where she recorded two blocks. Head coach John Cook said he hoped to get her some playing time in hopes she would be ready for Friday’s second-round match.
“We’ve been working on a lot of different lineups, so for them, it’s no big deal,” Cook said. “I was mainly just trying to get everybody in the match tonight. (Lauenstein is) feeling better. But she really hasn’t practiced a whole lot. So it’s good to get her in tonight. I’m sure we’ll need her tomorrow night.”
The Huskers (25-5) were still without Nicklin Hames, who also missed the regular season finale against Minnesota. Cook said he doesn’t know if the senior setter will play again this year, but it’s not his call. He said she is dealing with a concussion and several other ailments.
“They don’t leave those decisions to coaches,” Cook said. “She has to get cleared by our trainers for all the things that she has.”
After an emotional week where it missed out on a Big Ten championship and lost two starters, including senior Kenzie Knuckles, senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord said the adversity brought the Huskers closer.
“It made us kind of trust each other a little bit more and instill some confidence within each other,” she said. “We’re a very emotional team that can go one way or another, but I think it’s going in the right direction. I’m excited to see where things go.”
Delaware State made the Huskers work early on and only trailed 11-9 in the first set. A 4-0 run with Madi Kubik at the service line and a few defensive adjustments helped NU settle in and run away.
Cook said Delaware State ran a quicker offense than they had seen in film reviews. Senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord said they made a few adjustments, putting them in a better position to slow down the Hornets’ attack.
“They’re definitely a little bit different than the teams we’re used to,” she said. “We had to be extra disciplined and make sure that we’re low and over and not high and able to get tooled.”
Nebraska’s block was one of its best weapons against a Hornet lineup that didn’t include anyone taller than 6-foot-1. The Husker recorded 15, including nine from Kaitlyn Hord.
For the match, Delaware State (24-7) finished with 18 kills and 30 errors for a hitting percentage of -.108, the second-lowest by an NU opponent in the rally-scoring era since 2001. The 18 kills were the third-fewest allowed by the Huskers also since 2001.
Alondra Maldonado finished with eight kills, while Sydney Lewis had just one in 14 attacks. ‘Lewis said playing against the Huskers’ defense was exciting and a learning experience.
“It was really challenging because I thought I could swing one way and I would see somebody’s elbows in my face,” she said. “It’s good to play teams like that because it lets you know that you still could improve and get better and you have to figure out different ways, different shots that you have to hit.”
In the second set, the Hornets recorded an ace to trim their deficit to 9-8. However, Nebraska called a timeout, regrouped and on 16 of the following 17 points.
The Huskers jumped to an 8-2 lead in the third set, with Lindsay Krause serving six straight points and cruising from there.
Krause finished with a team-high 10 kills on a .500 hitting percentage. Seven came in the third set when she switched to the left pin on offense. Ally Batenhorst racked up eight kills in two sets of action.
Madi Kubik was blanked in the first set but recorded kills on five of her six swings in the second set and finished with six kills and a .333 hitting percentage.
The Huskers finished with a .341 hitting percentage against the second-best defense in the nation. Delaware State had only allowed opponents to hit .132 against it this season. Only Howard’s .370 efficiency rate was better than Nebraska’s.
Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez led NU with 19 assists. Kennedi Orr finished with a double-double with 10 assists and 10 digs, while Anni Evans chipped in 10 assists and eight digs.
Maldonado said she enjoyed playing in front of a sold-out crowd of 8,062 at Devaney and she’s never seen an environment like that before but always dreamed of playing in a packed arena.
“Every single little girl that plays volleyball and started playing volleyball wants to play in a gym like that,” she said. “It was just amazing how they actually cheered for both teams. We’ve never seen that before. It’s so awesome, and it felt so good to play here.”
The Huskers’ attention turns to Kansas, which blocked the Hurricanes 13 times and recorded eight aces.
Cook said the Jayhawks will pose a bigger challenge, and they’ll need to step up. While the Huskers didn’t learn much on Thursday to carry over, the most important takeaway was they get to keep playing.
“Stats don’t matter anymore. It also matters if you win. Win, and you get to keep playing,” he said. “That’s all that really matters in all this and we took care of business. I’ve talked to our team about being a great defensive team and they did a good job on Delaware tonight.”