LINCOLN — Nebraska got everything it needed out of the first weekend of the regular season.
A chance to try out new lineups, solid performances out of freshmen, a little adversity to work through and the experience of a full Devaney Center.
And most importantly, two wins. The fifth-ranked Huskers capped off the Husker Invitational with a 25-17, 27-25, 11-25, 25-22 victory over Kansas State on Saturday in front of 7,952 fans.
“A match like this, I don’t know if we could script it any better,” NU coach John Cook said. “This will give them a deep confidence that no matter how bad it’s going, we can still pull it out.”
NU lost an opportunity to experiment more with its lineup and get more playing time for its young roster after its match against Tulsa was canceled because of COVID, but learned a lot about itself with wins over the Wildcats and Colgate.
Four lessons we learned from Nebraska’s first weekend
OVERCOMING THE WALL
Despite moments of brilliance, the freshmen are still a work in progress. Cook said both outside hitter Lindsay Krause and setter Kennedi Orr hit the wall during the match and they have to get used to playing at a high intensity for an entire match.
Krause had five kills on eight swings in the first set but then had five errors in the second set before her next kill.
The bright spot was she rallied and delivered three kills late in the second that gave the Huskers a set point each time. The Omaha Skutt product finished with 12 kills on 32 attacks.
Orr ran the offense well in the first two sets, but lost steam quickly and struggled in the third and fourth sets.
Orr and sophomore Anni Evans split time at setter, running a 6-2 during the first two sets before Orr took over in a 5-1 in the third set.
Cook said he thought Orr was fatigued on Saturday because she hasn’t played much competitive volleyball during the past year.
“Playing setter as a freshman is a tough deal,” he said. “That’s why there’s only been one setter ever as a freshman that started here. And, she’s sitting on the bench with me (injured senior Nicklin Hames). I just think mentally, physically, she just hit the wall, but that’s why they call it a team.”
Even when players are struggling, the Huskers have plenty of options.
With Orr fading, Cook inserted Evans with the Huskers trailing 12-6 in the fourth set. She recorded 12 assists on 19 sets and reenergized the NU attack. Evans and Orr split time in a two-setter system during the first two sets against Colgate before Orr ran the third.
Even after standing by the bench for almost two hours, Evans entered the match and didn’t miss a beat.
“That’ll be something Anni remembers for the rest of her life,” Cook said. “That’s a heck of a comeback. She set great. She was in the zone. I mean, every set was perfect, and that’s why I’d like to know our hitting percentage with her setting. It had to be astronomical.”
The Huskers also have plenty of options when other parts of their game break down. When the passing got a little sloppy, Cook inserted junior Kenzie Knuckles and sophomore Keonilei Akana for extended stretches. When he wanted a change of pace on the outside, freshman Whitney Lauenstein came in for junior Madi Kubik.
IMPROVED IN THE MIDDLE
Nebraska looks like it has plenty of options in the middle. After getting just three swings against Colgate — all kills — senior Kayla Caffey went off against Kansas State with 13 kills and a .632 hitting percentage. Senior Callie Schwarzenbach had a combined 27 attacks over the two matches and looked more powerful on the attack. She also had 13 combined blocks, but defense is never the issue with her.
Sophomore Kalynn Meyer also looked solid as she had four kills in limited action.
LOTS OF NEW WRINKLES
The Huskers have added new wrinkles to their game plan to keep opponents guessing. On defense, Kubik would join the middle blocker and setter as part of a triple block against the opponents’ outside hitter.
The attack has lots of new options. Knuckles took a few swings as the back row player, and Krause played the back row as an opposite and got plenty of red attacks.
Late in the fourth set against KSU, Caffey ran a Back 1 play where Evans set her over her head for a quick attack in the middle that resulted in a kill.
“We practice (that play) a lot. It just hasn’t transferred over to games,” Caffey said. “Hopefully we can see that more this season.”
What we still don’t know
A BIGGER ROLE FOR AKANA
The sophomore defensive specialist was Nebraska’s best server on the weekend. She served nine points in the third set, including eight in a row, against Colgate. Against Kansas State, she served four points late that gave NU a 20-18 lead.
“She had a heck of a weekend,” Cook said. “From the serving line, she willed us Game 4 there.”
With two of Nebraska’s three captains on the bench in street clothes (Hames and Lauren Stivrins) and the third playing a part-time role (Knuckles), the Huskers played long stretches without one of their elected leaders on the court. When everything is going well, this isn’t an issue. But as demonstrated during the third set versus K-State, when issues arise, it can all spiral out of control.
Multiple upperclassmen said everyone shares in the leadership responsibility, but the Huskers need someone to gather the group to calm them down and refocus them when errors start to mount.
“Each of us is trying to find where our role is as a leader,” Kubik said. “We have lots of people that have experience playing in these big matches, so they can offer that and encourage the younger players. The more they play in those big matches, the better your experience gets, so I think we’re just kind of doing it live.”
While NU will be markedly better once Hames and Stivrins return, freshmen Ally Batenhorst and Rylee Gray didn’t play this weekend because they were nursing minor injuries.
Cook said Batenhorst could have played if they absolutely needed her, but they were trying to get ahead of the issue before it turns into something major.