LINCOLN — Nebraska’s blocking deficiencies were never more clear than the day Meghan Haggerty came to practice to see it spelled out in big block letters on the team’s large marker board.
“Coach had written up on the board that we were one of the lowest teams in blocking efficiency in the Big Ten,” Haggerty said. “That really motivated all blockers to step up their game.”
But after finally getting more comfortable with a new technique and with the help of an eye-in-the-sky teaching device, the Huskers quickly have transformed into one of the best blocking teams in the Big Ten.
Nebraska ranks third in the league with 2.62 blocks per set for the season, but in conference matches only, the Huskers lead at 3.23. It’s a large reason No. 8 Nebraska (12-3) takes a 5-1 Big Ten record into this weekend’s matches with Indiana (8-9, 0-6 Big Ten) Friday and No. 25 Purdue (11-6, 2-4) Saturday at the Devaney Center.
Both matches start at 7 p.m. and can be seen live on NET and the Big Ten Network.
“I think it’s a huge game changer when we do (block well),” Haggerty said. “If we’re not having a really good blocking night, we know we need to step it up. It’s all technical, so it’s just more mentally getting more checked in.”
A change in Nebraska’s blocking technique took some time to refine and led to some growing pains. Assistant coach Dan Meske, who coordinates the team’s blockers, said the team changed its blocking fundamentals in the spring. Previously, blockers would shuffle from side to side, keeping their hips parallel to the net.
But the Huskers now run from spot to spot while turning their bodies perpendicular to the net before turning back parallel while attempting the block. While refining the new approach early in the season, Nebraska blockers struggled to get their hands over the net, often leading to opposing attackers firing the ball off the Huskers’ hands for easy kills — known as “tooling the block.”
“Our blocking was just atrocious in the spring,” Meske said. “We had a ton of bad touches, and it was tough to stay the course and trust what we were doing. Now, once we have a full preconference season to really go for it and figure it out, we’ve seen huge improvements from a ton of girls.”
Meske said the addition of a camera mounted on the Devaney Center scoreboard looking straight down at the net allows coaches to show the players a bird’s-eye view of the blockers’ positioning. It has helped make adjustments to the small details like footwork and hand placement, which can mean the difference between a block and an opponent’s kill.
The work began to bear fruit around the start of Big Ten play. After averaging 2.15 blocks per set as a team in the nonconference schedule, Nebraska has racked up more blocks than its opponent in each of its first six conference matches. That includes a season-high 18 stuffs last Friday in a five-set win at Michigan where Nebraska held off the Wolverines’ comeback thanks to four blocks in the decisive fifth set.
The Huskers are the only team with three players among the conference’s top 10 in blocks during league matches. Middle blocker Cecilia Hall (1.42 blocks per set) is fifth in the league, followed by freshman opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen (eighth, 1.25 bps) and Haggerty (ninth, 1.21).
No Husker has improved more than Haggerty, who besides raising her attack percentage to .400 in league play, leads the team in the coaching staff’s internal blocking efficiency metrics, head coach John Cook said.
“We evaluate them if they touch the ball. Does something good happen or something bad happen?” Cook said. “She’s been grading out really high, way higher than last year.”
Haggerty said she was mostly guessing when reading attackers during her freshman season, but after a year of study, she now is better able to anticipate where opposing attacks will come from and react to the play.
After combining for 12 blocks in wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin two weeks ago, Haggerty was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week for the first time in her career.
“Since getting defensive player of the week, that really knocked up my confidence,” Haggerty said. “Before I didn’t really think I was a good blocker, or could be. Now, I think so.”