LINCOLN — At the end of the nonconference season, Nebraska’s offense was lost.
The Huskers ranked last in the league in hitting percentage (.206), kills per set (12.32) and aces per set (1.18). They were also 13th in assists per set (11.38). They hit a low after suffering three straight losses to ranked teams and tried numerous lineups to find anything that worked.
However, once conference play started, Nebraska (13-3, 7-0) settled on a stable lineup and a dominant offense quickly emerged. In league-only matches, the Huskers lead the Big Ten in hitting percentage (.301), aces per set (2.0), are second in kills (15.04) and third in assists (13.61).
The ninth-ranked Huskers hope to continue their hot streak on offense when they take on Illinois (12-6, 4-3) Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Devaney Center.
For NU coach John Cook, there is no singular reason for the Huskers' ascension to first place in the league.
“I just think we are just playing more consistent,” Cook said. “Our rhythm’s better and our blocking-defense has gotten better and we've been winning the serve-and-pass battle.”
Here are four factors that helped Nebraska play at a higher level once conference season started:
Stivrins is back
It’s a wonder what inserting an All-American can do to the offense.
Lauren Stivrins returned to the lineup and looked nearly as good as she did while posting one of the best hitting percentages in school history during the spring. The super senior middle blocker is averaging 2.31 kills per set at a .433 clip in five matches. She’s added a competitive spirit that is contagious and mature leadership that comes from her three years as captain.
Adding Stivrins’ firepower to the lineup doesn't just show up in her stats. It allowed senior Kayla Caffey to move back to her more natural M2 position. In addition, defenses have to adjust their blocking schemes to deal with Stivrins' potent slide attack, which in turn opens up bigger windows for other attackers.
“She's obviously a game-changer,” Cook said about Stivrins. “It takes a lot of focus off our outside hitters. The other thing it does, it gets Kayla back in her natural position. She's much more comfortable in that position than playing Lauren's position. It just elevates everybody.”
Hames is healthy
Setter Nicklin Hames only missed two matches after she injured her ankle during the Red-White scrimmage on Aug. 21, but the impact lingered much longer. The Huskers were without their top setter for more than a week of practices and that stunted their development during a vital part of the season.
While on the sidelines, Hames was unable to build connections with NU’s attackers, which included three freshmen at times. The timing of when the conference season began consequently coincided with Hames being fully healthy and allowed her to hit her stride.
“(Hames) getting hurt in the Red-White really threw a wrench in everything and really slowed us down,” Cook said. “She's got two freshmen out there. She hasn't had Lauren. Think about that. We got three new hitters for her so it is taking time to develop that, but we still got a lot of work to do.”
Defined roles and trust
The same three outside hitters have started each conference match. Whether it is clearer roles or a combination of the first two reasons, each of Nebraska's pin hitters have taken off during conference play.
Madi Kubik improved her attack from 2.19 kills per set at a .197 clip during nonconference to 4.39 and .271.
Lindsay Krause upped her averages from 1.94 kills per set with a .163 hitting percentage to 3.17 at a .381 rate while earning Big Ten freshman of the week honors on Sept. 27.
In the preseason, Ally Batenhorst hit 1.50 kills per set at a .121 clip, but in seven starts since then she has 2.45 kills per set and a .261 hitting percentage.
Krause said she is seeing the court better and is relying on her teammates to call out open shots. The trust for the team comes from the work they’ve put in at practice to build the relationships and learn each other’s tendencies. In addition, without having to worry about being pulled from the lineup for making a mistake, the starting attackers could swing with more aggression and confidence.
“As a team, we've just been working on coming together and playing with more confidence and trusting one another,” Krause said. “As soon as Big Ten play hit, we all as a team stepped up our game and as coach likes to say we got our edge a little bit.”
Elsewhere the rest of the roles have been clearly defined. The back-row rotation of libero Lexi Rodriguez and defensive specialists Kenzie Knuckles and Keonilei Akana anchor the defense and provided a spark with their serving. Sophomore Anni Evans has emerged as a serving specialist. The only changes at middle blocker have been a result of Stivrins return and Caffey missing two matches because of illness.
While those three reasons might help explain the offense's marked improvement, Nebraska has also been helped by a soft schedule to start the Big Ten as it has defeated the bottom five teams in the standings. Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan State, Rutgers and Iowa have a combined five conference wins. The good news for the Huskers is they have dropped just one set to that group.
Four of the Huskers’ top five hitting efficiency performances this season have come during the Big Ten season. The Huskers’ lowest mark (.244) in league play came in its lone match against a ranked opponent: a four-set win against No. 13 Penn State.
However, the tough stretch is about to start. Nebraska still has two more matches against No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 6 Purdue. They also have single matches remaining at No. 12 Minnesota, at No. 7 Ohio State and against Penn State.
Even though the Huskers have stepped up their play lately, Cook was quick to point out that it has been a collective effort. And he’s also not content to stay at this level.
“It's never one person. It's a team,” Cook said. “We just want to try to continue to improve and reach our max whatever that is. That's our focus right now.”