LINCOLN — Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook has said since the start of the season he thinks the Huskers can be an exceptional blocking team.
Cecilia Hall’s career night Wednesday proved NU is inching closer to reaching that potential.
The sophomore middle blocker from Sweden had a career-high 11 blocks as part of a 16-block effort for No. 11 Nebraska, which swept Illinois 25-21, 26-24, 25-12 at the Devaney Center.
The 16 blocks were the most this season in a three-game match for Nebraska (16-4, 9-2 Big Ten) and paved the way for NU’s eighth consecutive win against the Fighting Illini.
“Whenever you get a block, you kind of get a turnaround because the side that gets a block gets so pumped, and the other side is kind of defeated getting stuffed,” Hall said. “It’s almost like two points worth.”
For the first time in Hall’s career, her parents traveled from Sweden to watch from the stands and they were among a crowd of 8,283 fans that saw Hall have a hand in two of Nebraska’s biggest blocks of the night.
Illinois appeared poised to even the match 1-1 with a 23-20 lead in Game 2. But after a Fighting Illini service error, Hall teamed with Kelsey Robinson to block Liz McMahon, Illinois’ 6-foot-6 outside hitter, to close the deficit to 23-22.
After an ace by Kadie Rolfzen tied the set 23-23, Hall combined with Amber Rolfzen to block Illinois’ leading hitter, Jocelynn Birks, giving the Huskers a set point. NU finished off the set three rallies later on a solo block by Robinson.
“That’s the number one thing we work on in practice, because we know we’re all such exceptional blockers,” said Kadie Rolfzen, who had 13 kills and 11 digs. “I think that’s the one thing we’re all great at. Just the fact that we have to trust it. We have to trust our skill, and we do it all the time, so we know we can do it. We just have to put it in games now.”
Did the Game 2 comeback take the air out of Illinois (9-12, 5-6)?
“Oh, yeah. You could just tell by their faces,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “The way they were coming out, they weren’t swinging hard. They weren’t doing what they did in Games 1 and 2. We all looked at each other and were like ‘We got this. Just look at them.’ ”
Nebraska jumped to a 10-3 lead in Game 3, led 20-8 at one point, and closed the match with six more blocks in the final set.
The Husker blockers have to enjoy seeing Illinois on the schedule. The Fighting Illini tend to run a slower offensive system that sets high balls to the outside, where on Wednesday, a pair of NU defenders were usually waiting. NU had 11 blocks in a three-set win in Champaign on Sept. 28.
It was more of the same Wednesday with four other Huskers besides Hall each adding four blocks. It was the second-highest block total of the season for NU, behind only 17.5 stuffs in a five-set win over Wisconsin.
“Illinois sets really high sets, so we have a lot of time to wait,” Hall said. “It just clicked today.”
Hall’s 11 blocks marked the first time a Husker had reached double figures in blocks since Brooke Delano had 10 stuffs in a 2010 match against Oklahoma.
Robinson led all players with 15 kills and had just one error to hit .389 — the 10th time in 11 matches she has hit at least .333.
Hall and NU setter Mary Pollmiller each added five kills as the Huskers hit .318 as a team, and freshman middle blocker Melanie Keil had three kills and four blocks after replacing starter Meghan Haggerty in Games 2 and 3.
Illinois outside hitters Birks and Morganne Criswell both started hot with six kills in Game 1 before cooling considerably. Birks led the team with 11 kills, but had six errors to hit .132. Criswell managed just three more kills after Game 1.
McMahon, who had 20 kills in Illinois’ upset win at No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday, had six kills and five errors against the Huskers while being blocked four times.
“We couldn’t stop Criswell or Birks in the first game. It was driving us nuts,” Cook said. “But, by Game 3, we started doing a good job on them, and I thought we did a nice job on McMahon.”
Illinois (9-12, 5-6 Big Ten) ............................ 21 24 12
At Nebraska (16-4, 9-2) ............................ 25 26 25
UI (kills-aces-blocks): Birks 11-0-2, Criswell 9-0-2, McMahon 6-0-3, Mayers 6-0-0, Dorn 2-0-4, Viliunas 1-1-0, Stadick 1-0-1
NU: Robinson 15-0-4, K. Rolfzen 13-1-4, A. Rolfzen 6-0-3, Hall 5-0-11, Pollmiller 5-1-4, Keil 3-0-4, Haggerty 1-0-0
Set Assists: I, 30 (Viliunas 28). N, 42 (Pollmiller 31) Total Digs: I, 40 (Beltran 19). N, 43 (Wong-Orantes 12, K. Rolfzen 11). Att.: 8,283