After last year’s senior class departed, Nebraska lost some of the best defenders in program history. All-America libero Justine Wong-Orantes, All-America middle blocker Amber Rolfzen and All-America opposite hitter Kadie Rolfzen could make it an ordeal for opponents to get kills down against NU.
Though some of the faces have changed, the Huskers still feed on that give-no-inch mentality, and after letting Kansas State get off to a hot start Friday in the Omaha Challenge, No. 10 Nebraska eventually ground the Wildcats’ attack to a halt in a 25-22, 25-11, 25-16 sweep at Baxter Arena.
“We were suffocating them. That’s what it feels like,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “You just can’t get anything down. You can’t get it by the block.”
Kansas State 6-6 was hitting better than .500 near the midpoint of the first set, but as the Huskers turned up the intensity and dialed in the Wildcats’ hitting tendencies, K-State started to run out of options.
In notching the team’s sixth consecutive sweep, Nebraska (6-2) held K-State to a season-low .101 attack percentage. And after being outblocked by the Wildcats 4-1 in the first set, NU held an 8-0 advantage in blocks the rest of the way.
“We were just not over the net as much,” NU middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “Our timing was a little bit off, but that came with communication. We were talking more as we were making our (blocking) moves. It just gradually got better.”
Stivrins led the way on a standout night for the Husker middles. The redshirt freshman from Scottsdale, Arizona, joined senior middle Briana Holman for the team high with 10 kills. Stivrins also led NU with six blocks.
Though Cook said the Huskers “have a whole another notch” in the offensive connection between the middles and setter Kelly Hunter, Nebraska’s middle attacking was efficient Friday. Both Holman and Stivrins hit .500 on 32 combined swings.
“I think in practice we’ve been doing really well running middles and have been successful there,” Stivrins said. “We’re just trying to get it working in games, too, when it really counts.”
Whatever shots K-State got by NU’s block usually were handled by the Huskers’ back row. Junior libero Kenzie Maloney led all players with 16 digs, while Annika Albrecht had 15 and Hunter added 11. Nebraska finished with 22 more recoveries than the Wildcats (51-29) and held K-State to identical .029 hitting marks in Games 2 and 3.
“I think communication got a lot better after the first set,” Maloney said. “The coaches were kind of on us a little bit after the first set, too. I don’t know, the intensity picked up all around, all players.”
The dominating finish came after the Huskers had to wiggle out of some trouble in Game 1.
K-State scored four straight to erase NU’s 21-17 lead, but committed its fourth serving error on the next serve. Holman scored on a transition kill on the ensuing rally, and the Huskers finished Game 1 when freshman Jazz Sweet finished a tough out-of-system kill and Mikaela Foecke’s stiff serve forced a K-State error.
The Huskers rolled in the final two sets thanks to decisive scoring runs. They used a 12-2 run to bust open Game 2, and reeled off six straight points in Game 3 to widen a 15-14 lead.
“It’s awesome. That’s what our team lives for,” Stivrins said. “That’s when we play the best because we’ve got energy, because everyone’s having fun and going after it.”
Hunter had 37 assists and set Nebraska to a .323 attacking mark with Foecke and Sweet each adding nine kills.
Junior outside hitter Kylee Zumach was the only K-State player in double figures in kills with 10. The rest of the Wildcats combined to hit .037 with 21 kills.
K-State became the sixth straight NU opponent to hit .133 or worse, a streak the Huskers will take into the final day of the Omaha Challenge with a pair of Saturday matches against Northern Iowa (noon) and UNO (7:30 p.m.) at Baxter Arena.
“I just think our team has the mindset, and I talked about that (to the team) because it starts with Kenzie, that you’re going to have to work really hard to get a kill down on us,” Cook said. “You’re going to have to make a great play. K-State was able to do it for about 20 minutes there, and then they couldn’t keep it up. That’s when our defense started having an impact.”
Kansas State (6-6)……..22 11 16
Nebraska (6-2)………….25 25 25
KSU (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Zumach 10-1-2, Vogel 6-0-1, Williams 5-0-1, Carlson 4-0-0, Sandbothe 4-0-2, Schultejans 2-0-1
NU: Stivrins 10-0-6, Holman 10-0-3, Foecke 9-0-1, Sweet 9-0-4, Albrecht 6-1-2, Hunter 3-1-2, Townsend 0-1-0
Set Assists: KSU 28 (Smith 14, Dixon 12, Killeen 2), NU 45 (Hunter 37, Maloney 4, Foecke 1, Townsend 1, Holman 1, Albrecht 1)