Early into conference play, there seems to be something different about this year’s squad that stands out from most Husker volleyball teams. The Huskers’ defense has been average so far, yet the offense has come out firing.
On offense, the Huskers struggled during non-conference play to stay consistent. In one set, the Huskers would hit over .400, while in other sets, the Huskers had a negative hitting percentage. The big offensive swings were a problem, but four games into conference play, Nebraska has figured something out.
In Big Ten play, the Husker offense has not only played consistently but has turned into a force. Nebraska is the second-best offense in the Big Ten, hitting at a .324 rate with a season-high of .468 against Rutgers.
This turnaround can be attributed to almost every Nebraska outside hitter and middle blocker playing great offense. Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins is the second-most efficient hitter in the conference, and five different Huskers have hit over .300 in at least one Big Ten match.
“In [the] Big Ten, [if] you get .270 as an outside hitter — that’s really good,” head coach John Cook said at Monday’s press conference. “You’re going to be an All-American.”
Junior outside hitter Jazz Sweet is one of the five players hitting over .300 and has been the most electric Husker on offense, hitting .302 overall with 126 kills this season. Sweet averages 3.71 kills per set and is hitting .392 in Big Ten play, second-best for any outside hitter.
Sweet’s non-conference play had been up and down, as she started the season with two good performances and two performances below .200. The next match, Sweet hit .000 against High Point despite the match being Nebraska’s best non-conference offensive showing.
Sweet’s non-conference performances were shaky, but her improved showings have fueled the Husker offense. When Sweet hit over .300, the Huskers offense had three of its four best offensive, non-conference performances.
Sweet hit .435 against Wichita State — her best non-conference match. This last non-conference match springboarded the team into the Big Ten season, where they have gone 3-1.
“She’s turned it up a notch in the Big Ten,” Cook said, “and we’ve encouraged her to play with more fire. She’s finally embracing that.”
Against Illinois, the Huskers hit .256 and came back to win after being down 2-1 in sets. Sweet was the leader of that offense with 18 kills and had 13 kills the next night against Northwestern. Those kills came with a massive jump in hitting numbers.
Sweet’s great numbers are an overall part of why the Huskers’ offense has improved so much and so quickly. Other players have started conference play strong, but Sweet provides a distinct advantage when playing at her best.
A left-handed outside hitter is a rare find in volleyball, and Sweet fits that mold. When Sweet gets rolling, opposing defenses have two distinct issues: the offense opens up for Nebraska and the opposing setter is far more likely to dig, Cook said.
Forcing the opposing setter to dig pays massive dividends for Nebraska’s defense. If the setter digs, there is no chance she can create plays, and setters are often the best passers on the team. Being left-handed, Sweet can force the setter off the net and make them play closer to the back row.
Another part of the Husker offense is playing out of system. Out-of-system plays happen when a setter can’t start a play or when an unexpected pass or dig makes Nebraska change its formation quickly. For Sweet, one of her most important roles is hitting when Nebraska is out of system.
“We’re trying to set her more out of system because she’s a lefty, so it’s natural for her,” Cook said.
While Sweet helps the offense get out of these out-of-system plays, she does not get the majority of her kills there. Her high hitting percentage shows she is hitting out of system well and often continues a rally within that possession. Her efforts in these situations lead to potential points that the Huskers would not otherwise get.
Nebraska was swept by the Wisconsin Badgers last Saturday, and part of that can be attributed to playing out of system more than the Badgers. Overshadowed by the sweep was Nebraska’s offense, which hit .336 and kept up with the Badgers’ offense.
Sweet had 13 kills on a .524 clip despite the Huskers’ struggles against Wisconsin serves that forced unlikely sets from different players. Sweet has shown glimpses of this type of play from her last two seasons but hadn’t quite brought it all together until now.
Sweet’s sophomore campaign was disappointing to some as she struggled in most matches against the Big Ten titans. A year later, Sweet has finally broken out of her shell and has done so just at the right time.
“Jazz is on a mission,” Cook said. “She wants to be a great player.”