If the mantra “defense wins championships” holds true in college volleyball, the No. 6 Nebraska Huskers should be able to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Huskers rank first nationally in opponent hitting percentage and have allowed foes to hit just .129 against them. The next best is Florida Gulf Coast, whose opponents are hitting .135 against them.
The next-highest Big Ten team is No. 7 Penn State with a mark of .160.
Nebraska head coach John Cook said he bases his team around playing good defense and blocking.
“If a team is playing great defense, what’re you supposed to do? You can’t hit the ball harder,” Cook said after the team’s match against Michigan State earlier this season. “It’s one thing the other team can’t prepare for.”
Nebraska’s defense has maintained this mark despite being tested on several occasions this season. The Huskers faced Minnesota, Illinois and Penn State two times each. Those three teams rank fourth, 10th and 27th, in offensive hitting percentage nationally. Nebraska also played Wisconsin and Creighton, who rank 11th and 23rd in the same category.
In those eight matchups, the Huskers are 3-5 with wins against Penn State, Illinois and Creighton. When Nebraska defeated the Nittany Lions, Penn State hit just .114 against the Huskers. Illinois only hit .157 when they played against Nebraska at home. Creighton managed a mark of .207 but hit under .150 in the three sets that Nebraska won.
In the loss to the Badgers, Nebraska held Wisconsin to .114 –– over 160 points below its season average –– but the Huskers only managed to hit .087 themselves, contributing to the loss.
Minnesota’s offense managed to overwhelm the Huskers in both their matches, hitting .280 in one match and .372 in the other. With the standard that has been set by the Huskers, Cook said this should offend the team.
“If somebody hits .280 on us, we’re taking big notice of that,” Cook said after the team’s loss to Minnesota on Oct. 6. “We’ve got to take that personally.”
In the following 10 matches since the contest against the Gophers –– a span that included five matches against top-10 teams –– the Huskers have allowed only two opponents to hit above .200 against them. Minnesota hit .372 and No. 15 Michigan, who hit .209 in the Huskers’ most recent match Saturday.
In that same span, the Huskers held four opponents to hitting percentages under .100 for the match.
The Huskers have seen good production on defense from both veterans and newcomers.
Just last week, sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for her performances against Penn State and Rutgers. Stivrins recorded a career-high 10 blocks against the Nittany Lions and another eight against the Scarlet Knights.
Her counterpart, freshman Callie Schwarzenbach, leads Nebraska with 1.49 blocks per set, which also ranks 14th nationally. The middle blocker’s defensive performance has earned her the nickname “Schwarzenblock” from her teammates and fans.
The Huskers also have several players on the passing end that excel at defending the swings that make it past the block.
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney has been a defensive stalwart for the Huskers with a team-leading 4.04 digs per set. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames is not far behind, averaging 3.41 digs per set.
Outside hitters senior Mikaela Foecke and sophomore Lexi Sun, although perhaps better known for their offense, are both averaging over two digs per set as well.
“You’ve got to be a great serving team, you have to be a great blocking team and you got to be a great floor defense team,” Cook said. “Those are the three parts to it.”
Nebraska gets another chance to show off its defensive prowess against another pair of Big Ten foes this week. The Huskers play No. 12 Purdue on Friday and Indiana on Saturday. Both matches are on the road, start at 6:00 p.m. CST and will air on BTN Plus.