By Lincoln Arneal
In the first set against Michigan State, Nebraska looked like a dominant Big Ten title contender. The third-ranked Huskers hit .379 and won the set by 10 points.
However, the next two sets were error-filled and sloppy as NU committed 15 hitting errors for a .167 percentage to go with seven serving errors.
Despite the lackluster numbers, the effort was enough to get by Michigan State (9-3) with a 25-15, 25-19, 25-23 sweep Friday night at the Devaney Center.
Junior setter Anni Evans said they were making uncharacteristic mental errors such as not putting away overpasses, tipping too much and giving up points on shots they should be digging.
“Every team is gonna give us their best shot, and we need to be ready for teams not to just roll over after set one,” Evans said. “(It’s a matter of) just refocusing on our side of the net, playing Husker volleyball, and being confident going out there taking big rips.”
NU coach John Cook was skeptical that it would hold up on Saturday night when No. 7 Ohio State comes to Lincoln.
“We’re gonna have to clean up a lot of stuff in the next 22 hours,” Cook said. “We’re going to have a great effort there. They do everything really well and they have some players that have given us fits, so we’ve got to get a really good job and pressure them.”
In the first set, the Huskers (9-1) took control early with a 10-4 advantage following an 8-1 run that included three kills and an ace from Madi Kubik. NU hit .379 in the set as five attackers recorded at least two kills. The Spartans scored just two points on their serve the entire set.
The Huskers looked like they were going to cruise again in the second set leading 12-6, but MSU never folded, and their errors mounted up. NU committed eight attack errors and missed five serves in the set compared to just six kills by the Spartans.
With help from the Devaney crowd, the Huskers closed the set and won five of the six final rallies, including two kills and a block from freshman Bekka Allick.
“Husker Nation doesn’t disappoint with being in tune with where we’re at mentally as a team,” Allick said. “They can tell when we’re in a funk and it’s a reminder that they’re not the only one that notices that we’re falling behind. Whether it’s our energy or it’s our mojo, something needs to be picked up.”
Allick and fellow middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord each finished with six kills on a combined 24 attacks. Cook said they emphasized setting the middle blockers more, but NU still didn’t utilize them enough despite the increased production. Evans finished with 18 assists on 26 sets, while Orr recorded 14 assists on 56 sets.
Cook said the main issue with the offense was the setter’s confidence. He told them they need consistent hittable balls and to trust in their training, especially after a good week of practice.
“The more confident you are, the better you can set. If setters start becoming inconsistent, it’s hard to keep a good rhythm,” Cook said. “I’m sure we lost a lot more points in Kennedi’s rotations tonight than Anni’s. We have to be better. She has to be better.”
The third set was even more of a struggle as the Spartans tied the set at 22-all after a 6-0 run. Cook substituted Evans in to help calm the offense. Once again, NU delivered in the clutch by winning three of the final four rallies.
“No matter how ugly it is, we just need to really fall back on each other,” Evans said. “It didn’t matter what the score was; I knew (my teammates) were going to help me out, and I was going to help them out. No matter how we win by two points, we just need to find ways to win by two points and we did that.”
Kubik led the Huskers with 14 kills, eight more than anyone else in the match while hitting .212. Lindsay Krause had six kills on 14 errorless swings, while Maggie Mendelson added six. Lexi Rodriguez led the defense with 13 digs.
Evie Doezema paced the Spartans with eight kills, but she also had six errors. MSU finished with a .170 hitting percentage with 15 service errors.
The victory marked the 800th career win for Cook. After the match, NU athletic director Trev Alberts presented Cook with a commemorative belt buckle to mark the occasion.
He told director of operations Lindsay Peterson that he didn’t want any celebration of the achievement. Still, Cook said he appreciates the thought put into the gift, given his recent interest in horses and ranching.
“That was very nice of Trev, or whoever thought of that idea,” Cook said. “Right now, that’s a very meaningful gift to honor something that I really don’t care about.”