The match was coined as a “Celebration of Volleyball” by Nebraska head coach John Cook in his Monday press conference. Pep bands, cheerleaders and just over 11,000 fans packed into the CHI Health Center to witness what may have been the most anticipated volleyball match in Nebraska since the COVID-19 pandemic began
Cheers of “Go Big Red” and “Let’s Go Jays” clashed in the air above and cascaded down to the court below.
When the dust settled, the celebration belonged to No. 3 Nebraska on Wednesday as the Huskers cruised to a 25-14, 25-22, 25-16 sweep of the No. 19 Creighton Bluejays.
“We’ve never played in front of a crowd like that,” Creighton senior outside hitter Jaela Zimmerman said postgame.
Cook echoed Zimmerman.
“Everybody was a little nervous,” Cook said postgame.
Creighton struck first with a kill by Zimmerman. Nebraska trailed early 6-4, but the Huskers came roaring back with a 7-1 run to take a 11-7 lead in the first set. The Huskers would maintain control throughout the remainder of the set.
“We applied the pressure on them from the start, especially with our serves,” senior outside hitter Lexi Sun said postgame.
A 3-0 run gave Nebraska its first lead of the set at 7-6. From there, the Huskers outscored Creighton 21-8 and took the first set in dominant fashion, 25-14. Junior outside hitter Madi Kubik led the way in kills for Nebraska with six, while sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana, who did not start the match, led the team with six digs.
After losing its first opening set of the year, Creighton started hot in the second set, opening on a 7-2 run. Zimmerman, from Malcolm, Nebraska, pounded three kills in the run to power the Bluejays into the lead at 9-6 and prompted the first timeout of the match from Cook.
“It was a slugfest,” Cook said.
Creighton took a 17-13 lead, its largest of the second set, but that lead soon evaporated. A 6-0 scoring run from Nebraska, featuring a kill from junior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles and an ace from Akana, put the Huskers ahead for the first time at 20-18. The Huskers would maintain its lead and win the set 25-22,taking a commanding 2-0 lead for the match.
“We said we had to go two points for every one of theirs. We knew if we could get back and get close, we would pressure them,” Cook said.
Creighton felt the pressure.
“As soon as they got us on our heels, we peeled back,” Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said postgame.
In the third set, it was Nebraska’s turn to start fast. The set was tied at 4-4 before Nebraska went on a 7-0 tear, building a 11-4 lead. Freshman outside hitter Ally Batenhorst was the star of the third set for Nebraska. The Houston, Texas native started the set for Nebraska and finished with five kills, four digs and a block.
“I agonize over who to start every night,” Cook said.
The Husker lead would balloon to as large as 20-9 on the way to a 25-16 set victory and Nebraska took the match 3-0. The sweep for Nebraska made for its second in as many matches and was the first time Creighton had been swept by the Huskers since 2015.
“Creighton is a really great team so being able to sweep them at a place like this is a big confidence booster,” Sun said. “Seeing everyone be able to step up and play different roles and step in at different times is really awesome to see,” she added.
For Nebraska, the story was defense.
“I thought Nebraska’s defense was the best we’ve seen. UNO had eaten them up on the tip and they defended that and the back row attack very well,” Bernthal Booth said.
The seemingly unlimited range of the four Nebraska defenders Cook called elite in his Monday press conference was on full display throughout the match. Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez led the team with 17 digs, Akana had 13 digs, while senior setter Nicklin Hames had 12 digs and Knuckles tallied an additional eight digs.
“We train for that. We train to not let balls hit the ground,” Cook said.
Nebraska held Creighton kill leaders freshman outside hitter Norah Sis and Zimmerman to 12 total kills on 80 total swings. Both outsides hit in the negative and Creighton as a team hit .053. For Cook, that was the key.
“When you play great defense, it’s really hard to prepare for that. There’s really not much you can do,” Cook said.
Nebraska finishes its non-conference schedule over the next two weeks with the trio of No. 20 Utah, No. 14 Stanford and No. 10 Louisville. The Huskers return home Saturday to face Utah. First serve is set for 7:30 p.m. and the match can be viewed on BTN+. With the defensive effort on display against Creighton, Cook and his team are confident for the future.
In the words of coach Cook, the smothering defensive effort from the Husker quartet was, “All gas and no breaks.”