They say it’s hard to beat a team twice.
Well, try winning three times in one year without dropping a set. That’s about as good as it can get in a conference like the Big Ten.
No. 10 Nebraska ended the Cinderella bid from Illinois on Thursday night, sweeping the Illini for the third time this season 25-12, 25-21, 25-17.
“We didn’t come out playing our best volleyball,” Nebraska volleyball assistant coach Jaylen Reyes said postgame. “We didn’t pass the ball very well tonight.”
Reyes was almost left out of the Husker regional trip. Reyes said he began feeling sick Tuesday but tested negative for almost everything. Instead of the team flight, Reyes had to make the 12-hour drive to Austin with his girlfriend. They made the most of it.
“She played a game of ‘let’s try to stop at every gas station and rank the terrible gas station coffee in order,’” Reyes said.
While Reyes was on the sidelines for the Huskers, there was a major absence for the Illini. Senior outside hitter Megan Cooney, who was second on the team in kills and third in digs, did not take the floor. Yet, because of the preceding Texas-Washington match running long, Reyes said the Husker coaching staff didn’t see she was missing until later in the abbreviated warm-up period.
“We didn’t really know what to do because we didn’t know what lineup they’d put out there,” Reyes said. “We kind of just held our tongue and saw what they did.”
Nebraska got out to a strong start. Kills by freshman outside hitters Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause were a part of a 5-1 Husker start. The Illini were not phased by the Husker attack. Nebraska built leads of 6-2 and 11-6, but Illinois cut the deficits to 6-5 and 11-9.
Each time Illinois came close to taking the lead the Huskers regained their momentum. It was a vigorous service run featuring two service aces by senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins that allowed Nebraska to assert its dominance on a 7-0 run. The Illini burned their second timeout with the Huskers in control 18-9.
Nebraska finally had its footing. The Huskers closed the set on a 6-0 run and took a 25-12 victory. Krause finished the set with four kills and junior outside hitter Madi Kubik had two. Sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry had four kills for the Illini. Nebraska out-hit Illinois .250 to -.057.
Once again, the Illini did not cower in the face of the Husker attack. Illinois won the first point of the set and continued to counter each Nebraska punch. A 4-0 run for the Illini and they doubled up Nebraska 12-6 as the Huskers called timeout.
Then it was Nebraska’s turn to storm back. A 5-0 Husker run powered by three kills from senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey put Nebraska within one at 12-11. Moments later, Kubik put Nebraska ahead 14-13 using the block to her advantage for a kill.
Both teams traded rallies before a 3-0 run punctuated by another Caffey kill forced another Illinois timeout. Leading 24-17, Nebraska surrendered a 4-0 run to the Illini and the Huskers needed a timeout. On the fifth set point, Batenhorst used a well placed roll shot to catch the Illini defense off guard and claim a 25-21 victory.
“We that going into this game we were gonna have to thump our serves,” Stivrins said postgame. “They’re a really strong offensive team and so the only way to beat that is to get them out of a rhythm.”
Leading 2-0 in the match, Nebraska had three attackers with five or more kills. Caffey and Krause each had seven while Kubik added five kills. The Huskers also dominated the service line with six service aces and many more that kept the Illinois offense off-balance. Nebraska held Illinois to a .091 hitting percentage through two sets.
With their backs against the wall, the Illini continued to hang with the Huskers. Tied 10-10, the Illini sparked a 3-0 run behind the serve of senior defensive specialist Taylor Kuper and took a 13-10 lead. Nebraska stuck back. A 4-0 response from Nebraska and a kill to end it by a familiar force in Caffey pushed the Huskers ahead 14-13.
Another multi-point barrage for the Huskers gave them a four point advantage at 18-14 as Kubik joined Caffey with double-digit kills. Senior setter Nicklin Hames’ successful joust at the net followed by a dump two points later lit the Husker powder keg. Nebraska closed the set on a 3-0 run and took the match three sets to none.
Caffey and Kubik had 11 kills each for the Huskers while Krause had eight kills on 14 swings. The Huskers hit .260 as a team to Illinois .088 and out dug the Illini by four.
Nebraska now faces No. 2 Texas on Saturday night in Austin after the Longhorns completed a five set reverse sweep of No. 15 Washington on Thursday. Texas ended Nebraska’s season earlier this spring in the Regional Final at Omaha.
For Reyes, the key to solving the Longhorn problem will be forcing Texas to play Nebraska’s game. Not tight at the net, but rather Reyes wants the team to rely on the serve and pass game that carried the Huskers throughout conference play.
“We have to thump and dime,” Reyes said. “If we don’t thump and dime, we’re gonna play right into their hands.”
Stivrins is excited for the chance against the Longhorns.
“I think it’s a great matchup for us,” Stivrins said. “We’re a really great defensive team. We love blocking and we love digging and they’re obviously a really talented offensive team.”
Stivrins’ emotions were present as well in her postgame interview. Saturday, she and the Huskers will try to prevent Texas from doing what Illinois could not: beat a team twice.
“This group of girls is so special,” Stivrins said. “I’ve had the time of my life playing here and I wouldn’t want to go out with any other group.”