By Lincoln Arneal
The Nebraska volleyball team might as well be living out of a suitcase right now.
The Huskers are in the middle of an 11-day stretch where they will only spend three days in Lincoln. After making the Big Ten East Coast swing to Rutgers and Maryland, No. 3 Nebraska will travel for a pair of matches taking on Michigan State Thursday and Michigan on Saturday.
“I can’t believe we take off tomorrow,” NU coach John Cook said after practice on Tuesday. “Four-day trips are long trips this time of year. (We) got another one. Thank you, Big Ten.”
It’s been a whirlwind for the Huskers. They left for the first trip last Thursday and after sweeping Rutgers on Friday night, they flew to Maryland Saturday. Cook said the flight was just 35 minutes, but it took more than three hours with all the security checkpoints at the Newark and Baltimore airports.
After the win Sunday afternoon, NU returned home that evening. After taking Monday off, the Huskers will practice at the Devaney Center twice before leaving again Wednesday afternoon. They will wrap up their travels late Saturday night/early Sunday morning with a flight back to Lincoln.
Junior Anni Evans said the road trips are made easier with their support staff. While away from home, all their meals are planned out, and they stay active with stretches and workouts to aid in recovery.
“They’re a little bit tough, but we are kind of used to it. That’s kind of how the Big Ten works,” she said. “Our support staff is so good that it makes those long road trips a little bit easier.”
This week’s road trip was supposed to feature back-to-back matches, but the Spartans are hosting basketball practices on Friday night so volleyball moved up its match in the Breslin Center by a day.
The hardest part is adapting to the constant change of life on the road, Sophomore Lexi Rodriguez said, which can impact their focus at times. However, her favorite part of the road trips is playing in front of large hostile crowds in packed arenas like Minnesota, Penn State or Wisconsin.
“It can be kind of hard to stay in a routine of what we’re used to doing when we’re at home when we’re living in a hotel and getting meals catered in and always on a bus or a plane,” Rodriguez said.
SERVING FORWARD — After struggling for most of the season with serving, NU took a step forward against Rutgers and Maryland with 19 combined aces, which was more than it recorded in the previous six matches.
While Cook said the work will always continue, they need to build off the confidence they displayed on the road.
“They’ve been serving great in practice and now we’re seeing that going in games,” he said. “That’s just a big thing. Can we do it every week? Every match? Every point?”
Rodriguez said players are feeling more comfortable at the service line. They tinkered with their serves a few weeks ago and are now seeing the results. She recorded three aces and just one error during the road trip.
The All-American libero said she’s working on the movement of her serve and getting it to float a little more.
“I’m serving where I should be, and I just made a goal to serve even higher,” Rodriguez said. “I think I’m a lot more confident in my serve right now. And I’m excited to hopefully make it even better.”
WINNING WITH DEFENSE — While the Huskers have been working through inconsistency on offense, the main calling card has been its defense.
The Huskers will face a test this weekend as they face Michigan State for the second time and Michigan, which leads the Big Ten with a .287 hitting percentage.
Last year, the Huskers led the league with a .148 opponent’s hitting percentage. This season, NU is the best in the nation allowing teams to hit just .117.
“If we are No. 1, we’re doing something right,” Cook said. “We were a great defensive team last year. … These guys understand serving, blocking and defense. They understand that, they know how important it is and they really embrace it.”
The way the Huskers are doing it is different. Last year’s success was built on an impenetrable back-row defense, while this year relies on a bigger block and stingy floor defense.
NU’s digs are down from 17 per set to 15.3, its blocks are slightly up to 2.62. Part of the greater success at the net is a result of the 6-2 offense, which allows NU to always have three big bodies in the front row. In addition, middle blockers Kailyn Hord and Bekka Allick are an upgrade defensively from Kayla Caffey and Lauren Stivrins.
The defense has allowed the Huskers to prevail even when their offense isn’t playing its best. NU has hit below .150 three times this season and won all three, including a .099 performance against Maryland on Sunday.
Rodriguez said they take pride in all aspects of defense, whether blocking or digging.
“If our offense is going to struggle, it just gives our defense more opportunities to make some big-time plays,” she said. “At the end of the day, our defense knows that. There may be times our offense is struggling, but that’s fine. We’re still going to do whatever we can to help the team win.”
Even though the Huskers are undefeated in Big Ten play, Cook said they have room to improve in all facets.
“I’m really pleased where we’re at,” he said. “I also know we have not even come close to hitting our potential, which that’s what gets me fired up every day.”
ORR SEEKS CONSISTENCY — Kennedi Orr might want to quickly forget about Sunday’s Rutgers match. The sophomore setter was called for seven double touches, including five in the third set, which was the only one the Huskers dropped.
On Tuesday, Orr bounced back and didn’t have any double touches in a three-hour practice. Cook said she gets plenty of reps and has good fundamentals but has to deliver in matches when it matters most.
Cook said he is sticking by Orr because she still flashes that elite talent that made her the top-ranked prospect in her class.
“She does everything really well on some days,” Cook said. “Today she made some unreal plays – plays I’ve never seen setters here make. She’s got to learn how to do that in the games and be consistent.”