Clutching a souvenir mini-volleyball, she stood on the endline in the darkness with her teammates by her side.
Thousands of phone flashlights sparkled in her eyes like stars. She heard the name of freshman outside hitter Lindsay Krause and then, it was her turn.
With the thundering shout of the public address announcer and the roar of the crowd carrying her at her back, senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins made her return to the starting lineup for the first time this season Friday night. The No. 12 Huskers dominated the Michigan Wolverines 25-14, 25-15, 25-13.
“It was one of those experiences where there were so many emotions that you just black out,” Stivrins said postgame. I’ve worked quite hard to get back to where I am right now so it was a very special moment.”
Her setter, senior Nicklin Hames, felt the magnitude of the moment too.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Devaney as loud as it was when they announced her name,” Hames said postgame. “I got goosebumps down my legs and that doesn’t happen very often.”
Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook had thought of starting Stivrins in the front row, but after the anticipated “Jordan [Larson]” like ovation from the crowd, he decided against it.
“I told her, ‘you have to breathe and calm down,’” Cook said. “I wanted to make sure that she would have time to let the match get going. Otherwise, she might have ripped the first ball of the night into the first deck.”
Stivrins felt the adrenaline.
“I was up at the net, my legs were shaking, and I was like, ‘just breathe, It’s okay’,” Stivrins said.
Nebraska began the match on an impressive serving run by freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez to take a 5-1 lead. Nebraska would grow its lead to 15-7 midway through the set. In that scoring run, Stivrins’ first kill of the year came off her patented slide. The Huskers would go on to take the first set of the match 25-14.
The impact of Stivrins return to the lineup was clear in the first set.
“She’s obviously a game changer,” Cook said. “It takes a lot of focus off our outside hitters and it lets Kayla[Caffey] get back to her natural position so we got her some good swings tonight.”
Nebraska started fast in the second set too. A 6-1 Husker lead was cut to three at 7-4, but the Huskers responded with a 6-0 run, including two service aces by sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana to take a 13-4 lead.
Stivrins would take control of the second set following a Husker timeout, scoring the last three points for the Huskers with two kills and a combined block with Krause. Nebraska took another set by double digits, winning 25-15 and taking a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
“Our team has been kicking butt in practice this whole week and so it was no surprise to me that we came out and played the way we did tonight,” Stivrins said.
The third set belonged to Stivrins and Hames. Stivrins got Nebraska started with three early kills. Then, Hames sparked the Huskers in the third with four straight serving aces and notched a kill, giving Nebraska a 16-6 lead.
“That’s the key to Michigan. We see serving like that everyday in practice so I don’t feel bad for Michigan because our passers can’t pass it when she is thumping it like that,” Cook said.
Hames’ solo scoring run led the way to a 25-13 victory in the third set and a sweep of Michigan.
The addition of Stivrins was key for Hames in broadening the Husker attack.
“People really have to worry about Lauren. It really opens up our offense,” Hames said.
The Huskers had only four attacking errors for the first time in three years and had their best attacking percentage of the season at .462.
“This is what we see everyday in practice. We just hadn’t seen it in a game yet so it was really special to see everyone getting after it today,” Hames said.
Stivrins and junior outside hitter Madi Kubik led the Huskers in kills with 11 each. Stivrins hit a team best .733.
“Hopefully I can only go up from here,” Stivrins said.
Hames had a reply of her own.
“I mean you had 11 kills and hit .733. So yeah that’s pretty average,” Hames said to Stivrins with a smile.
Cook sensed a connection between the fans and Stivrins.
“She’s a warrior. They know what she’s gone through,” Cook said. “Watching our crowd really makes you appreciate it and want it.”
According to Stivrins, the only thing that could have made the night better was if her brother, who showed up midway through the first set, had gotten there on time.
“I’m not mad but I am a little disappointed,” Stivrins said of her brother. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more really. I love this team and I’m truly excited to see where we can take this thing.”
Hames felt the same.
“Stivrins slide. We’ve missed it,” Hames said.