By Lincoln Arneal
When Nebraska’s players gathered in early August, there was uncertainty in the air.
How would six newcomers integrate into the team? Who would be the starting setter? How would the outside hitter rotation shake out?
The Huskers navigated the nonconference schedule undefeated with wins over No. 16 Creighton, No. 5 Stanford and No. 21 Kentucky. They had a nice road win at Kansas State. They entered the conference season ranked in the top five and poised to contend for the conference crown.
NU still has plenty of challenges ahead during the 10-week Big Ten gauntlet. Before Nebraska dives into the league schedule, it is time to assess what we’ve learned during the nonconference slate.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
The Freshmen are Legit
This could be four lessons learned. The youngsters have established themselves as key cogs in the Huskers’ lineup.
Everyone saw glimpses of the immense talent earlier this year during the beach season, the spring match and the Brazil trip. During the first month, they’ve exceeded expectations.
Leading the way is setter Bergen Reilly, who grabbed the keys to the offense. After NU hit .244 last season, the Huskers are showing marked improvement in their attack this year. Reilly is calm, consistent and the offense looks smooth. If she can continue the development that she’s shown during the first month, Reilly could help guide the Huskers to a deep postseason run.
Harper Murray earned the starting outside hitter spot and has proven to be an electric offensive weapon. She hasn’t shown any signs of being intimidated and has used an arsenal of weapons to be one of Nebraska’s top attackers. While her athleticism is elite, Murray has also shown highly skilled shots to terminate.
Andi Jackson was involved in a timeshare during the first weekend of play at middle blocker with Maggie Mendelson and Bekka Allick. However, Jackson quickly made it difficult to keep her off the court with her explosiveness and athleticism. She’s among the national leaders in hitting percentage and is holding her own on defense. It doesn’t matter if she is running the slide or a quick set in front of or behind the setter, Jackson is likely to terminate.
Laney Choboy has established herself as another defensive stalwart. Her play against Stanford saving a point in a crucial part of the fourth set will be a highlight for years. She’s pure hustle and a spark plug for team chemistry.
Nebraska is a Title Contender
The Huskers usually get some deference in early season polls because of their pedigree and overall talent. With a team of six newcomers, there was a little uncertainty entering the campaign about how all the pieces would fit.
However, NU has answered all the questions. The Huskers were the last team in the nation to drop a set, which they did against No. 16 Creighton, their first ranked opponent. The win over No. 5 Stanford in Palo Alto, California, should leave no doubt that NU has the talent to compete with anyone.
The mental strength to win on the road against a rival that has dominated the recent rivalry history will serve this team well. Even though they are young, that youth might benefit them as the Huskers don’t have to worry about the pressure of history and can embrace the challenge in front of them.
Nebraska still has to go through the Big Ten, which took more lumps than usual during the nonconference season. The league will provide high-level tests as opponents gather more film on NU’s newcomers.
Husker Fans are Dedicated
University officials laid down the challenge in February to sell out Memorial Stadium, and 92,003 fans rose to the occasion, setting a world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event.
Volleyball Day in Nebraska exceeded nearly every expectation. The event was well thought out. It honored the history of the sport with Husker alums present, high school coaches honored and national team members in attendance. It also set the stage for the future. Hundreds of high school players packed North Stadium and members of Omaha’s new professional team were recognized.
While it wasn’t the prettiest volleyball, the Huskers showed immense skill to deal with the unusual conditions to defeat Nebraska-Omaha. But the event wasn’t entirely about the action on the court. It was a celebration of the sport and lifted up women’s athletics. It succeeded overwhelmingly on both counts. It was a special event that few in attendance will likely forget.
THREE REMAINING QUESTIONS
Who Will Solve the L2 Position?
Lindsay Krause has earned the starting nod on the left pin for most of Nebraska’s early matches. However, her production is down from a year ago when she played opposite. Ally Batenhorst started against Lipscomb and Kentucky. She looked impressive in one set against Long Beach State. Hayden Kubik has only received token appearances so far.
The opportunity for more playing time is available. Krause will likely have the first shot at it. She’ll need to mix up her shots and use the block as her friend more often. NU coaches will probably use her until a better option presents itself.
So far, the Huskers haven’t suffered too much from a drop in production from this spot because Merritt Beason and Murray have been so good out of the back row. However, unlocking the second outside hitter position will be essential as the conference season cranks up.
Can Serving Woes Be Fixed?
The Huskers have more than twice as many errors as aces. While that statistic alone doesn’t tell the whole story about serving, it can show how effective a team is.
NU committed 17 errors against Stanford and 10 against Long Beach State, more than three each set. Some of the Huskers’ best players – Murray, Beason and Reilly – have been the biggest culprits for miscues. Murray also leads the team in aces, as boosted by her three against Stanford, all of which caught the tape and rolled over.
There’s a fine line between serving aggressively and giving the other team a lollypop to set up its offense. The Huskers try to serve low and keep the ball below the antenna. Too often, the result is a ball in the net. Consistently good serving is about rhythm and skill. It’s also a mental test – just the player and the ball at the end line. If the Huskers strike the right balance, it will boost their already tough defense and set them up for more success.
Will the Big Ten be a Two-Team Race?
Wisconsin and Nebraska impressed during the nonconference with several big wins against top teams. The two have already separated themselves from the league’s other teams. Both were the top picks entering the season and have proven worthy early on.
On the other side, Penn State went 1-3 against ranked teams, with its lone victory coming against Western Kentucky. Ohio State entered league play with a losing record (3-6) and didn’t win a game against teams in the Top 25 (0-6).
The wild cards are Minnesota and Purdue. The Boilermakers have looked impressive behind freshman outside hitter Chloe Chicoine. They had a tough opening weekend, losing to Creighton and Loyola before catching fire with five-set wins against Kansas, Kentucky and Marquette. However, PU ended nonconference 6-3 after falling to USC.
The Gophers have quality wins against Oregon and Baylor, but lost to Texas, Florida, Stanford, and Creighton. They still can make noise behind reigning B1G player of the year Taylor Landfair.
The rest of the Big Ten failed to notch a noteworthy win as they played softer schedules to build their records before league play. Once conference play starts, they will have the chance to prove themselves as the real tests begin in late September.