MINNEAPOLIS — The thing about having a team full of newcomers is often you don’t know what to expect. Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook has maintained that this season’s club is full of surprises.
So going into Game 5 Sunday at No. 9 Minnesota, Cook told his team — which looked both superb and subpar often just minutes apart in the match — to trust their training and keep swinging hard.
The result was a statement victory as No. 11 Nebraska rallied from a pair of blowout sets to hold off the Gophers 25-22, 15-25, 27-25, 15-25, 15-11. The Huskers handed Minnesota its first home loss of the season and strengthened their grip on second place in the Big Ten, one game behind No. 2 Penn State.
“Minnesota gave us everything they had, but we found a little more in Game 5,” Cook said. “The kids gutted it out, man. That was impressive.”
It was the third straight year the teams played a five-setter at the Sports Pavilion, and in Game 5, Nebraska (19-4, 12-2 Big Ten) caught the upswing of a roller-coaster match in which the Huskers’ star outside hitters outshined Minnesota’s talented collection of weapons.
Kelsey Robinson and Kadie Rolfzen each had five kills in the finale that NU never trailed after jumping to leads of 3-0 and 6-3. After a deft dump from the back row by Nebraska libero Justine Wong-Orantes put the Huskers up 9-6, Minnesota never got closer than three points.
Robinson’s final kill, her match-high 23rd, sealed the win on match point. The senior from Bartlett, Ill., added 18 digs to complete a weekend in which she may have sealed the Big Ten’s player of the year honor. She had 21 kills and 13 digs Friday night at No. 16 Wisconsin.
Rolfzen was only slightly outdone with a career-high 20 kills and 11 digs while hitting .351. With opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen struggling and NU’s middle blockers providing limited offensive contributions, the Huskers’ two left-side hitters consistently faced two Minnesota blockers on most swings.
They got kills anyway.
“That’s huge,” Cook said in a phone interview from Minneapolis. “(Kadie Rolfzen) and Robinson were really good tonight when it mattered. That’s a hard thing to do. We’ve got to figure out a way to get right-side kills.”
A pair of tactical switches to begin Game 5 played a role in the virtual disappearance of Minnesota opposite hitter Adrianna Nora, who dominated much of the match with a career-high 18 kills. NU moved Kadie Rolfzen in a rotation to match up with Nora at the net and positioned Wong-Orantes to dig Nora’s cross-court shots.
Nora finished with no kills in Game 5 and had two costly attack errors.
“Nora was killing us all four games, and we got her in Game 5,” Cook said. “We got the matchup of Kadie on Nora, which is what we wanted. I think Kadie was able to give her a lot more problems than Kelsey was.”
Both games Nebraska dropped Sunday were blowouts, leading to a set of statistical disadvantages not normally seen from the winning team. The Gophers won 108 rallies in the match compared with 97 for the Huskers. Minnesota also had three more blocks and outhit NU .335-.254.
But every time the Huskers seemed like they might be steamrolled by a Minnesota team playing in front of a home-court crowd of 5,210, NU found a way to bounce back.
“Minnesota is a tough team. They’re very tough,” Cook said. “They can make you look bad, and they made us look bad in some games tonight and some situations. But, you know, all you can hope for on the road is to get into Game 5 and play great. Our kids did a great job.”
Nebraska (19-4, 12-2) .......................................... 25 15 27 15 15
At Minnesota (22-5, 10-4) .......................................... 22 25 25 25 11
NU (kills-aces-blocks): Robinson 23-0-3, K. Rolfzen 20-2-1, Haggerty 9-0-5, Pollmiller 5-2-1, Hall 5-0-4, A. Rolfzen 4-0-4, Fien 2-0-0, Broekhuis 1-0-0, Ostrander 1-0-0, Wong-Orantes 1-0-0. Totals 71-5-18.
UM: Wittman 19-0-2, Nora 18-0-6, Santana 15-1-1, Dixon 7-1-4, Tapp 6-0-7, Schau 2-0-3, Palmer 0-2-0, Lawmaster 0-2-0. Totals 67-6-23.
Set assists: NU 69 (Pollmiller 61), UM 65 (Palmer 36, Schau 23). Att.: 5,210