Once again Nebraska earned a top-16 seed for the NCAA Tournament and it gets to return home for one last weekend. This is the 16th consecutive year that Nebraska is hosting postseason matches and this year, familiar foes will return to the vaunted Devaney Center.
Nebraska’s first-round opponent, Ball State, went 20-11 and finished fourth in the Mid-American Conference during the regular season. The Cardinals then went on a MAC Tournament run and won the tournament title, beating Bowling Green 3-2 to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid.
This is the Cardinals’ second-ever MAC tournament win and marks their third-ever match against the Huskers. Nebraska swept the two previous matches, with Nebraska winning the last matchup 3-0 back in 2004.
15 years later, Ball State and Nebraska will square off again for the first-ever postseason match between the two teams.
Nebraska freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller come from the Muncie area, where Ball State is located. With familiar faces for Miller and Knuckles, the first-round match is almost another homecoming for the two.
The return to the Devaney Center for the postseason has become a constant for the Nebraska volleyball program, but the regular season is now over. There is no margin of error and for someone like Knuckles, an off-night can end the season.
Knuckles’ role becomes much bigger in the postseason as she is responsible for not just the defense but also passing effectively through digs. Head coach John Cook emphasizes passing so much that he is never satisfied with where it is at.
Passing starts from the dig and with Knuckles leading the way, she has to dig properly to set up the rest of the offense. Knuckles has done this well throughout the season but the postseason is much different with even more pressure than the regular season.
The regular season is over and the past does not matter anymore so Nebraska should expect Ball State to give everything it has. That means being ready for anything despite the talent disparity and not taking the match lightly.
The match is at 7 p.m. on Dec. 6, and will follow Missouri against Northern Iowa at 4:30 p.m. The winner of that match will most likely play Nebraska the following day at 7 p.m.
Missouri and Nebraska were members of the same conference for over 100 years yet split from each other in 2010. Last year was the first time the two schools played each since the Big 12 era and Nebraska won 3-0.
That was just another part of the long historic domination Nebraska has over the Tigers. Nebraska is 72-3-1 all-time against Missouri.
Still, Missouri is a very capable team with wins against Michigan and has already beaten Northern Iowa in the regular season. The Tigers are led by junior outside hitter Kylie Deberg, who averages 4.82 kills per set and hits at .286.
Deberg is a part of an offense that was third in the SEC in hitting percentage and first in kills. The reason the Tigers are not much better than their offense indicates is due to a middling defense that has cost them matches against juggernauts Kentucky and Florida.
Opponents hit .221 against Missouri, which is good enough against lesser teams, but a weak offensive showing can cause the match to be fast-paced, something Missouri can not afford if it plays Nebraska in the second round.
Northern Iowa is an interesting case as it lost the Missouri Valley Conference championship to Illinois State, yet is seeded much higher than the Redbirds. Also, the Panthers upset the Huskers in four sets back in 2017, one of just four losses in Nebraska’s title-winning season.
The Panthers pulled off the upset despite being outhit and returned three players from that match. In order for the Panthers to have a chance at replicating that magic, they will have to win a rematch against Missouri.
Northern Iowa will need to step up on defense as it let the Tigers hit .263 and let Deberg get 18 kills in the first matchup. Northern Iowa can not let Deberg get rolling again or the match will end the same as last time.
If Deberg is slowed down, the Panther offense will have plenty of chances to pounce on a Tigers team that can’t simply rely on its offense to outhit the opponent. The Panthers hit .111 last time with senior outside hitter Karlie Taylor hitting .100 with only 12 kills.
Taylor averages over five kills per set, which is a bit inflated due to a weaker conference, but she is the engine of the offense. Similar to Missouri, if Taylor struggles to get going then Northern Iowa will need to rely on others and get points from its defense.
After that rematch, one of the two schools will likely get a match against No. 5 Nebraska on Saturday, Dec. 8, and a chance at a spot in the Sweet 16.