Volleyball Championship vs. Wisconsin Photo No. 27

Nebraska’s Nicklin Hames (1) and Lauren Strivrins (26) attempt a block during the championship match against Wisconsin at Nationwide Arena on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. 

One last hurdle stood between Nebraska and its quest for another national championship. 

The No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers had Nebraska’s number over the last four seasons — the Huskers last beating them back in September of 2017.

After set one, Nebraska took a 1-0 lead and inched closer to the program’s fifth national championship since 2000. Maybe this time, Nebraska could dethrone the Big Ten champion and reign supreme on all of volleyball

But the campaign came crumbling down. Wisconsin, the one hurdle Nebraska can’t get over, once again won and claimed its first national title 21 years after Nebraska beat Wisconsin in the same game.

Here are five takeaways from the madness-filled national championship epic:

The art of the serve

Coming into Saturday, both teams had an arsenal of great servers. For Wisconsin, junior setter Izzy Ashburn, senior libero Lauren Barnes and senior defensive specialist Giorgia Civita posed an intimidating trio. For Nebraska, sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana, senior setter Nicklin Hames and junior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles led the team at the service line.

The six all had an errors-to-aces ratio close to a 1:1 with Hames the furthest at one service error every .78 service aces. Ashburn stole the show on Saturday, notching four of Wisconsin’s seven service aces while Wisconsin scored at least two points in a couple of her serving runs.

Nebraska managed just four service aces, but had significantly fewer service errors, with just nine throughout the five sets. Knuckles had two of the four aces and led an early 4-0 second set run to secure a 5-1 lead for Nebraska.

Service errors were a part of the game, specifically on Wisconsin’s side, where the team suffered 14 service errors, and helped bring Nebraska back into set three. They also derailed momentum in the fourth set.

Still, the service errors didn’t define the game. Like every other facet, the service line flowed between both schools with mini scoring runs occurring quite often, and errors just being a by-product. In the third set alone, mini scoring runs were frequent with the most notable a Nebraska 3-0 run to cut the Badger lead to 21-20.

The middle block

6-foot-9 freshman middle blocker Anna Smrek and 6-foot-8 senior middle blocker Dana Rettke patrolled the net like watchdogs, notching a total 20 blocks. On Saturday, Rettke’s usually hyper-efficient offense wasn’t there but her defense offset that.

In the first set, Rettke and Smrek combined for two kills on 11 swings. Rettke continued to not find her offensive groove, often seeing her attacks hitting a Husker arm. In the second set, Rettke had a hand on four of Wisconsin’s six blocks.

Rettke’s defensive performance helped put a lid on senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins when Stivrins had her swings. On 27 swings, Stivrins had four attack errors and just 10 kills,  rendered ineffective on the offensive end.

Wisconsin had 24 blocks, the majority coming from its middle blockers, but still needed an offensive threat over the top. After all, Nebraska senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey heavily produced despite standing at a measly 6-feet tall compared to the two Badger giants.

Caffey had 15 kills on 30 swings and although she hit just .267, she was the Nebraska response to the Badger’s imposing middles. Smrek, not Rettke, was the one who put the offensive heat on Nebraska.

From the second set onwards, Smrek had 13 kills and overall hit .429 from the court. Smrek controlled the middle, a part that Nebraska had effectively taken from No. 3 Pittsburgh on Thursday, and launched a performance similar to her performance against Louisville.

Much like in seasons past, Nebraska eventually had an answer for Rettke, but Saturday saw the Huskers not handle the duo. Despite a perceived lackluster performance from Stivrins in her final game in a Husker uniform, Stivrins had a hand on five blocks and held her own against Wisconsin’s middle blockers at several major points.

The match fittingly ended on a Rettke kill, properly ending the career of one of the Big Ten’s greatest volleyball players. Stivrins didn’t get her crowning moment but the middle blocker’s efforts weren’t in vain.

Nicklin Hames’ last bow

It’s not a guarantee that senior setter Nicklin Hames returns for a final season. If she doesn’t, which appears most likely at the moment, her last game was one for the books. Hames made the NCAA All-Tournament Team over the likes of Wisconsin senior setter Sydney Hilley and Louisville senior setter Tori Dilfer for good reasons.

Against the Badgers, Hames had 56 assists through the five-set thriller and held the offense together when the Badgers were poised to run away with the fifth and final set. Where Hames shined the most was on the defensive end, though, specifically with her digs.

A part of Wisconsin’s offensive game plan was to avoid American Volleyball Coaches Association Freshman of the Year in libero Lexi Rodriguez, putting the onus on other Huskers to dig powerful Wisconsin attacks from almost anywhere.

Hames’ 23 digs, the second-most for Nebraska, was unusual since the Huskers’ offense largely runs through Hames on the second touch. With Hames digging, the offense had to rely on successful sets from different operators.

Nebraska kept up with Wisconsin despite its offense operating out of structure through the arms of Hames. That and her refusal to not jump at every attack kept Nebraska’s defense in-step with a much taller Badger offense.

When Hames’ arms weren’t on the floor or high in the air, the senior setter maintained an aura of coolness that had surrounded her for four seasons. The aura continued into the postgame press conference.

“But their strength, they're a huge block,” head coach John Cook said postgame. “And our strength is digging the ball and keeping the ball alive.”

In the end, Hames’ performance is one that should be remembered for a long time. She remained relatively calm on the court despite not being able to set up her offense consistently and continued to bring her energy even when Nebraska’s chances were almost near the gutter in the fifth set.

The war of attrition

Digs were common for both teams, as Nebraska had 93 digs to Wisconsin’s 79. The discrepancy came from the Wisconsin block, but surviving a battle as long as this one required composure for every player.

In particular, the back rows of Nebraska and Wisconsin were pushed to their limits. Barnes seemingly found the ball on nearly every Nebraska attack, notching 31 digs and over a third of the team’s digs.

Barnes was the general for Wisconsin, stifling many attacks into the back row by junior outside hitter Madi Kubik and freshmen outside hitters Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst. Kubik got the best of the Badger defense, notching 15 kills and hitting .267,  but also held visible frustrations along with Krause and Batenhorst.

One particular part were the missed swings such as Kubik not beating one-on-ones against Hilley, which were in part to Barnes’ and the Wisconsin back row. Frustration wasn’t just on Nebraska’s side, as multiple Wisconsin errors helped put Nebraska in the driver’s seat for the fourth set.

The first signs of a long battle was in the second set, where both teams exchanged multiple set points. The fate of the set, when in Nebraska’s hands, could have put the Huskers to a mighty 2-0 match lead.

Neither team could put away the second set. It would be a matter of who would blink first, which was still the younger Huskers who yielded a 3-0 run up 28-27.

Set three was similar, but only went to 25 points. Once again, Wisconsin won just 25-23 and marked yet another two-point set victory against Nebraska. The Huskers had come back from a deficit of four at 20-16 yet could not complete it.

By the fourth set, Nebraska fell down 2-1 and seemed it wouldn’t be able to close out a single close set against the Badgers. Nebraska had lost six sets to Wisconsin by the minimum two points over the course of 2021 but broke through that ceiling in the penultimate set.

Nebraska and Wisconsin both played a similar game, attempting to wear out the other side’s patience and finding some form of crack. The Huskers had theirs, breaking a 16-16 stalemate into an eventual 22-18 lead, and survived a Badger comeback as well.

One particular key was the freshman outside hitters, who struggled mightily to break the Badger block, continuing their frustration with very high attacks or attempts to avoid Barnes. But in the waning moments of the fourth, Batenhorst got the most electrifying kill and gave Nebraska one last shot.

Some of the best volleyball seen all season was played sets two through four, due to neither side backing down.

Never let the joy fade

Down 7-0 in the fifth set, the chance for a comeback was nearly impossible. Still, everyone on Nebraska’s side had no doubt that the comeback was doable. Positivity radiated throughout the Husker bench and within the Husker faithful as Nebraska’s long comeback began.

On the national championship volleyball court laid uplifting tweets near both team’s benches — the reason they were there was relatively unknown — but one on Nebraska’s side that stood out was “Never let the joy fade.”

The Huskers personified those words, turning some heads on its route back to the national title in set five. Unfortunately, Nebraska came up short but the saying has remained true for this season.

Those words can be seen in senior outside hitter Lexi Sun, a three-year starter at Nebraska who lost her spot in the Nebraska rotation this season, staying around and being as joyous as if she were still in the rotation.

Or maybe that’s through sophomore setter Anni Evans, who led the charge on bench celebrations no matter if Nebraska was winning or losing in a set. The most notable Husker, though, was Stivrins.

In 2021, Stivrins played two full seasons, had major back surgery and faced the startling reality of never stepping on the court again. Yet, as the confetti rained down on the court, Stivrins huddled with the rest of her teammates and was proud of how this season ended up.

“It's been a joy to play with them,” Stivrins said postgame. “And I'm obviously not happy the way it ended, but I'm happy that we got to this point.”

Holding up the national championship trophy is the goal for every player, coach and anyone else associated with a collegiate volleyball program. Nebraska came close to the summit and instead of staying down on what it didn’t do on the final steps, the team looked back on all it accomplished over the course of one of its more hectic seasons.

“It was a great match,” Cook said. “And I told our team that this might be the most proud I've been of a Nebraska team, how they handled the season, the setbacks, the losses to get to this match and play like that and even get way down in the fifth and fight our way back.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com