The Nebraska volleyball team tries to learn from its losses, even if there are not many losses to learn from.
After a five-set loss to Ohio State in the Devaney Center on March 13, Nebraska head coach John Cook said he understood the importance of stepping up and rebounding.
“It’s the Big Ten, baby,” Cook said at last Tuesday’s press conference. “We’ve got to bring it.”
Nebraska’s response to its most recent loss was a pair of dominant sweeps over Iowa. With a record of 12-2, the Huskers now face a road trip to Michigan before ending the year with a home series against No. 12 Penn State.
With the regular season nearing its end and the stat sheet beginning to fill up, it’s possible to take away some strengths and weaknesses for Nebraska during spring competition.
The Huskers are second in the Big Ten in hitting percentage. Their .270 mark is bested only by top-ranked Wisconsin, which possesses a gaudy .345 efficiency, good enough for third nationally.
Opponent hitting percentage within the conference presents an identical story. Nebraska’s .162 opponent efficiency is second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s .131. The Huskers possess this solid defense despite being only seventh in the conference in blocks per set and fourth in digs per set.
On the individual level, Nebraska is led by a handful of the conference’s top statistical performers. It starts with senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins. The Husker co-captain is rolling toward her second first team All-American honor and her third All-American season overall in her career. Stivrins is fifth nationally in hitting percentage at .465 while also having Nebraska’s second-best kill total.
Ahead of Stivrins in kills for the Huskers is senior outside hitter Lexi Sun. After earning second team All-American honors a season ago, Sun is poised to make a repeat appearance on a postseason honors list this year. Her 195 kills on .258 hitting are good enough for fourth in the conference in kills per set. Sun also leads the team with 16 aces and has added 0.69 blocks per set from the left side.
Nebraska cannot simply ride its leading kill producer to victory, however. Sun had a season-high 22 kills in the Huskers’ five-set loss to Ohio State. Conversely, she struggled to a .100 hitting percentage in Nebraska’s first match against Maryland on Feb. 5, but the team handled the Terrapins in four sets.
The statistical low point for the Huskers this year was the team’s first loss against Minnesota on Feb. 19. A hitting percentage of .151 was a season-low for the Huskers, and Sun hit a mere .021 in the match.
Nebraska’s aforementioned loss to Ohio State had much fewer statistical struggles. Behind Sun’s big performance, the team hit a respectable .244 on the match. The Buckeyes, though, had a slightly more efficient performance and hit .280 that night.
One common thread between the two teams that have defeated Nebraska this season is their use of six-rotation opposites to lead the offense. Minnesota senior Stephanie Samedy and Ohio State freshman Emily Londot lead their respective teams in kills and attempts from the opposite position. Cook said earlier this season that players like Londot and Samedy are unique in women’s collegiate volleyball.
Nebraska’s opposite position, meanwhile, has been identified as one of the biggest areas that needs to improve. Cook said before the Iowa series that he was still looking for answers at that spot.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason for it,” Cook said. “It’s like fine-tuning a race car, but right now we’re not running on all cylinders.”
For most of the season, sophomore outside hitter Riley Zuhn was the starter at the right pin for Nebraska. Zuhn has tallied 60 kills in 44 sets this season but is only hitting .123.
Cook made what would become a permanent switch last Wednesday night in Iowa City. Senior right-side hitter Jazz Sweet, who has held a starting role in her previous three years with the program, reclaimed her starting role in the road match against the Hawkeyes.
Sweet had played in 22 sets going into the Iowa series, but mostly as a reserve in blocking substitutions. The veteran attacker had seven kills and hit .417 in Nebraska’s sweep at Iowa.
The new starter on the right side was locked in under unforeseen circumstances. Before last Saturday’s rematch against Iowa in the Devaney Center, it was announced that Zuhn would miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury. Sweet, now firmly back in her familiar role, finished Saturday’s match tied for a team-high 12 kills on a blistering .733 hitting.
Sweet said after the strong performance that the transition to a bigger role was seamless.
“I think I used a lot of the things that we work on in practice every day, for sure,” Sweet said. “It’s definitely just trusting the training we do, because we have very high-level training.”
While Nebraska is strong in plenty of statistical categories, the development of a consistent right-side attack will be key to Nebraska’s success in big matches moving forward. Sweet is now hitting .303 on the year, albeit on only 66 swings.
With Wisconsin now back from a COVID-19 pause and carrying a record of 11-0, chasing down a conference title might be a stretch for the Huskers. The focus now turns to elevating the team’s balance and efficiency as the NCAA Tournament approaches.