By Lincoln Arneal
After building consistency and camaraderie during the season’s first three weeks, Nebraska is now ready for its first heavyweight test.
The first week presented the Huskers an opportunity to tinker with lineups, figure out the right combination and see who was ready for major playing time. The second week featured new environments as NU played in Memorial Stadium and at Kansas State. This past week gave NU its first taste of a ranked opponent and a familiar foe.
Now, the fourth-ranked Huskers will take on No. 5 Stanford on Tuesday night in their toughest test of the season. The match starts at 8 p.m. Central and will be broadcast on ESPN.
“This schedule was designed to build up to Week 4 here,” NU coach John Cook said after his team swept Long Beach State on Saturday. “I think we’re on a really good path. Now the level of competition is going up. They’re having a great season and we’re going on the road. So it’s a West Coast trip, and I want to see our team respond and play Husker volleyball and compete.”
Stanford features one of the country’s biggest front rows. Leading the way is 6-foot-5 opposite Kendall Kipp with 3.95 kills per set and a .302 hitting percentage. On the outside, the Cardinal feature 6-3 Caitie Baird and 6-1 Elia Rubin, who are both averaging more than three kills each set. In the middle, 6-5 Sami Francis and 6-2 McKenna Vicini put up more than a block per set.
Cook said the height could be used to the Huskers’ advantage. With a bigger block, NU can tool shots off it. Against smaller teams, like LBSU, it’s easier to hit over them, but it’s harder to hit off the block as the defense can turn high-hand shots into hitting errors.
“Some of those teams are easier to hit against – the bigger the block, the block can be your friend,” Cook said. “We were training (against a big block) all the time because we know we’re gonna see it in the Big Ten.”
Not only is Stanford big, but they are also experienced. They return all the contributors from a team that suffered a five-set loss in the regional final on its home court to San Diego. Kipp, Baird and Vicini are in their fifth years, while libero Elena Oglivie is a senior. Francis and setter Kami Miner are both juniors. Rubin is the most inexperienced starter as a sophomore.
The Huskers (7-0) experienced rough patches early but have played some of their best volleyball during matches against Kansas State, Creighton and Long Beach State.
Freshmen setter Bergen Reilly said she expects the young Huskers to continue to improve as the season progresses.
“We have just realized our potential and we’ve seen how good we can be and so I think that a big thing for us is just going in and being competent and playing that Nebraska volleyball for the entire game,” she said. “We’ve seen how good we can be and as long as we don’t let that drop, we should be good.”
Stanford has played a tough schedule this year with wins against No. 7 Texas, No. 15 Ohio State and No. 10 Minnesota.
The Cardinal’s only loss came to No. 3 Florida, but even then, they hit .333. For the season, Stanford is hitting .327.
After playing Saturday night, the Huskers must quickly turn around for the road match. NU flew to Palo Alto, California, on Monday morning.
The Cardinal have won the last five meetings with Nebraska, including during four of the past five seasons. The Huskers haven’t prevailed over Stanford since 2008. Junior opposite Merritt Beason said NU couldn’t get too caught up on Stanford’s accolades and must treat the match like every other match on the schedule.
“We’ve been doing a very good job of prepping for whatever team we have,” she said. “I think that’ll be key for us is making sure that we’re focused in on Monday so that we can prep the best we can for a quick turnaround.”