It was a chilly fall night in Evanston, Illinois as Nebraska met Northwestern in its first Big Ten conference match of the season.
Students packed into the purple seats of Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch their Wildcats for the first time this semester. The raucous and partially shirtless student section was coming off just its second day of classes this quarter and the students were full of energy poised to cheer their Wildcats to victory.
The Nebraska volleyball team and its brand new starting lineup had other ideas.
As the Huskers took the court for starting lineups, seven names were called. Freshmen outside hitters Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause took the floor along with freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez. The veterans included senior middle blockers Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach along with senior setter Nicklin Hames and junior outside hitter Madi Kubik. That grouping would tally 59 total kills and help the Huskers to a .308 match hitting percentage.
Senior outside hitter and two time All-Big Ten First Team selection, Lexi Sun, would not see the floor until late in the match but her impact would be almost immediate in Nebraska’s 3-1 victory over the Wildcats on Wednesday night.
Nebraska took control of a tight and competitive first set near the halfway point when a 3-0 run by the Huskers carried them to a 15-12 lead. The Huskers put together a 4-1 run to take a 19-14 lead that they would maintain for the remainder of the set.
Northwestern forced two set points from the Huskers after a missed serve by Rodriguez, but Kubik would go cross court to the back right corner for her sixth kill of the set, lifting the Huskers to a 25-21 victory in the first set.
Nebraska then got out to a 9-5 lead early in the second set. Two separate 3-0 runs for Nebraska would force the first timeout of the set from the Wildcats. Midway through the set, a 5-1 run for the Wildcats cut the Nebraska lead to three at 15-12. Nebraska would hold on to the lead from there. A missile from Caffey would put the lead back at five at 20-15.
The Wildcats wouldn’t go quietly, cutting the Nebraska lead to one at 22-21. After the timeout, Nebraska closed the set on a 3-0 run capped by a block from Schwarzenbach. Nebraska matched its first set victory score in the second set and took a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
“When you’re on the road, these teams are not going to quit,” Cook said following the match.
Northwestern started strong in the third set but could not quite put Nebraska away. The Huskers went on a 4-0 run and took their first lead of the set at 11-10 and the Wildcats took their first timeout of the third set. Northwestern stormed back, taking a 18-16 lead. Northwestern junior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, who the Huskers had held in check through the first two sets, posted an impressive third set with five kills and a block.
Northwestern, clinging to a 23-22 lead, called its final timeout of the set hoping to stall the Husker comeback. The timeout, plus a challenge of attack byBatenhorst, would do the trick. Northwestern won its first set against Nebraska since Nov. 2, 2013 by a score of 25-23.
“They’re really physical and we had a hard time matching up. They played great in game three. We couldn’t stop them,” Cook said.
The Wildcats built off of the momentum of the third set and started fast in the fourth taking a 6-2 lead. Sun made her first appearance of the match in the fourth set, providing an immediate impact with a block assist that sparked Nebraska’s 4-0 scoring run, tying the set at 7-7. A few points later, Nebraska would take its first lead of the set at 9-8.
After Sun’s insertion into the lineup, Nebraska outscored Northwestern 21-9. While correlation does not prove causation, Sun provided momentum off the bench with three blocks as Nebraska took the fourth set 25-16. The set was Nebraska’s best performance of the match on the way to a 25-21, 25-21, 23-25, 25-16 match victory.
“When she is dialed in, Lexi is the best left side blocker in the country. We were getting lit up over there so I said, ‘Lexi you’ve got to go in and shut this down.’ She did,” Cook said.
Cook noted not only the impact of Sun but also sophomore setter Anni Evans, whose tenacious serving helped the Huskers on the 9-1 run that put them in the driver’s seat in the fourth set.
“I used to kid her last year that she had the Waverly JV serves. She has been serving really hard in practice and we decided to give her a shot at that third sub and it worked out,” Cook said.
Kubik led the way for Nebraska with 19 kills while Krause added 15 kills to go with Caffey’s 12. Nebraska did not have an attacker with 15 or more swings hit below .200. The defense was also gritty. Nebraska held Thomas-Ailara to just 10 kills on 35 swings, holding her to a hitting percentage of .086. The Wildcat kill leader was held to her season lows in kills and hitting percentage by the Huskers.
“Any win on the road in the Big Ten is a great win. So, we’ll take it,” Cook said.
Nebraska next faces the 2-9 Iowa Hawkeyes at 2:00 pm on Saturday. Nebraska is 33-0 all-time against the Hawkeyes and will seek its eighth win of the season.