LINCOLN — Being a serving weapon isn't usually in the job description for a college middle blocker.
So when Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook found out freshman middle Meghan Haggerty wasn't a liability from the service line, it was essentially by accident.
The Huskers had maxed out their 15-substitution limit during a match against Michigan State on Nov. 3, which meant Haggerty couldn't be replaced by a serving sub. She responded by firing the first ace of her college career.
“We knew she served on her club team and we'd seen it in practice, so we thought when she was ready we'd start having her do it,” Cook said. “We wanted to make sure she could handle the pressure, and so far she has.”
Haggerty, this week's Big Ten freshman of the week, has been given more opportunities to serve recently for No. 9 Nebraska. Her deep float serve, which begins with an approach 10 to 15 feet behind the end line, can move unpredictably on opposing passers.
“I work hard at it in practice, and focus, and trying to visualize a game situation,” Haggerty said. “It's been working out in games.”
The Huskers still are tinkering with serving lineups to find the right balance between serving aggressively and sending serves out of bounds.
Until recently, senior Paige Hubl and freshman Sheridan Zarda were used regularly as serving subs for some of NU's front-row players. They've been seldom seen after a couple matches where the two fired a few too many service errors for Cook's liking, but the coach said they would continue to get opportunities to prove themselves.
“They know they're going to get chances and that they've got to keep working, but they've got to be at a level where we don't drop off,” Cook said. “They're going to get chances every day in practice. Those two, especially, need to help us.”
The Huskers' serving effectiveness isn't easily measured in aces and errors. Nebraska is ninth in the Big Ten in aces with 1.12 per set but fourth in the league in opponent's attack percentage. The goal is to serve tough enough to not allow an easy pass to the opposing setter.
The team has 44 service errors over its last five matches, which is more than anyone would like but is also indicative of the Huskers' efforts to disrupt their opponents' rhythm.
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“We've been getting after our serves,” NU libero Lara Dykstra said. “I think we have more serving errors because we're trying to go for it and not just put it in play. Sometimes, it's not about the aces, but getting them out of system so they're easy to defend.”
The Huskers are still working on the receiving end as well, to mixed results. Dykstra said when Nebraska struggles, it usually can be traced to passing problems. Husker coaches grade passing for each match, though Cook said the relationship between the team's passing metrics and hitting numbers don't always line up.
For example, Cook said last Friday's four-set win over Indiana was NU's best passing match of the year, but the Huskers hit only .236. The next night, Nebraska hit .312 in a five-set win over Purdue, which challenged the Huskers with tough serving all night.
“The correlation is there, but it doesn't always reflect in maybe attack percentage,” Cook said. “But it's usually going to help us win.”
Nebraska (20-5, 12-4 Big Ten) will have its passing mettle tested Friday night against No. 14 Minnesota (20-7, 11-5) in a 7 p.m. road match. The Gophers feature a trio of jump-servers — Daly Santana, Katherine Harms and Ashley Wittman — who combined for five aces in Nebraska's 3-1 win in Lincoln on Oct. 14.
The Gophers are tied with Penn State for the Big Ten's top attacking percentage (.298) and are second in the league with 1.61 aces per set. Still, Minnesota showed recently how narrow the margin can be between feast and famine when putting the ball in play.
In two losses at Michigan and Michigan State last weekend, the Gophers had 16 service errors in seven games, including a zero-ace, six-error performance in a 3-0 loss to the Wolverines.
“It's a fine line,” Cook said. “You want to serve really aggressive and tough this time of year, stress teams, but you've got to be low-error.”
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