Huskers sweep St. Mary’s to cap unbeaten run in Ameritas Players Challenge

LINCOLN — With Nebraska losing four senior starters from last year’s team, coach John Cook said the preseason is audition time for newcomers.

Saturday it was Anezka Szabo who, in her most playing time of the season, helped pull No. 12 Nebraska out of some tight spots in a 26-24, 25-22, 25-18 win over St. Mary’s that gave the Huskers a 3-0 weekend in the Ameritas Players Challenge at the Devaney Center.

Szabo, a freshman opposite hitter, put down a career-high 10 kills and hit .400 in a contest where Nebraska (3-2) had to overcome a shaky start and win a match that never felt entirely under control until the final stages.

“I just tried to bring a lot of energy and do what I could when I came into the game,” Szabo said. “I guess just going all out in those big-time moments, trusting my training.”

Cook said it was nearly a coin toss in deciding between Szabo and fellow freshman Jazz Sweet as starting opposite hitter before last week’s season opener. Sweet has played well as the starter, but the Huskers’ use of a 6-2 system this weekend not only meant they would use two setters, but also play both opposites.

Szabo had scored four kills in NU’s first four matches, but equaled that total Saturday in a first set in which Nebraska was chasing points. The Gaels kept pressure on with tough serving and had five blocks in the first set, stuffing Szabo’s first swing and blocking outside hitter Mikaela Foecke three times.

St. Mary’s (2-4) seemed in control up 21-16 before back-to-back kills by NU middle Lauren Stivrins and another Szabo kill cut it to 21-19. The Gaels would hold three set points leading 24-21, but then Szabo’s fourth kill of the opener triggered a run of five straight NU points that included kills from Briana Holman and Sweet, plus a pair of St. Mary’s hitting errors.

“I thought we came out a little bit flat to start this match thinking that maybe St. Mary’s would be similar to Oral Roberts, the team we played last night,” Cook said. “You could tell just the way we started off, a lot of errors, it was ugly.”

It was the Huskers who nearly fell apart in the second set, letting an 18-12 lead dwindle to 20-19 before Szabo — playing a rotation on the left pin instead of her customary spot on the right — scored to push the lead back to two. On the Huskers’ third set point, Szabo gave NU the 25-22 win with another kill off a dig and into the crowd.

Nebraska never trailed in the thrid set with Annika Albrecht scoring five of her nine kills.

Holman added nine kills and a match-high seven blocks, and junior libero Kenzie Maloney set a career high with 22 digs. Holman, a senior who was named the tournament’s MVP after hitting .525 over the three matches, said the Nebraska freshmen are finding their way, encouraged by upperclassmen who know the team needs them to take confident attacks in high-pressure moments.

“It tells them that we really trust them,” Holman said. “Like (Szabo) said, she knows we’re behind her 24/7 and we’ll work really hard to cover them. We really want them to take those big swings.”

On Saturday, freshmen accounted for 23 of NU’s 47 kills and were in on six of nine blocks. Redshirt freshman setter Hunter Atherton had 21 assists, sharing time with senior Kelly Hunter.

It’s a first-year group that is growing more confident. That’s not a luxury for this year’s team, their coach says. It’s a necessity.

“I’ve told you I’ve really liked these guys,” Cook said of his freshman class. “I love Anezka’s fight and spirit out there. She just really competes. But, we need those guys. Last year’s class is gone so we need new people to step up. That’s what this whole preseason is about because we have to figure that out before Big Ten.”

St. Mary’s (2-4) …….. 24 22 18

At Nebraska (3-2) ….. 26 25 25

SM (kills-aces-blocks): Rund 11-1-2, Hughes 5-0-6, O’Sullivan 4-0-4, Young 4-0-1, Calvin 3-0-5, Knudsen 3-0-1, Hernandez 1-0-0, Wilkerson 0-3-0, Bible 0-1-0. Totals 31-5-19.

NU: Szabo 10-0-0, Holman 9-0-7, Albrecht 9-0-0, Stivrins 7-0-2, Sweet 6-0-4, Foecke 6-0-3, Atherton 0-1-0. Totals47-1-16.

Set assists: SM 28 (Parker 13, Hernandez 10, O’Sullivan 1, Knudsen 1, Bible 1, Young 1, Wilkerson 1), NU 44 (Atherton 21, Hunter 17, Maloney 2, Foecke 1, Sweet 1, Stivrins 1, Szabo 1). Attendance: 8,147.