Nebraska Volleyball vs. Penn State

Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) goes for a kill during the game against Penn State at the Bob Devaney Sports Complex on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In an emotional week for Nebraska volleyball off the court, the Huskers could not take any days off despite the hardships they faced. Instead of backing down, Nebraska stood up and came together to play its best volleyball yet.

On Sunday, the Huskers received heartbreaking news, as Dane Leclair, a grad student and manager for the team, passed away. In yesterday’s match against Rutgers, the team wore shirts in warmups with his last name on the back to honor him. Coming into the matchup with Penn State, Leclair was still in the team’s hearts.

“I told them before the match, I didn’t even talk about tactics, game plan,” head coach John Cook said. “The only thing that matters tonight is that we play with our heart and you play for each other.” 

The week ended with No. 8 Nebraska playing No. 7 Penn State at home for an important match in the conference standings. The historic rivalry delivered another classic matchup between the Big Ten’s best and like many matches before, it went to five sets.

Nebraska and Penn State split the first two sets, with each team winning a set 25-18. From the opening serve, the Huskers and Nittany Lions were destined to be locked into another grueling five-set match.

Nebraska’s offense stole the show in the first set as it hit over .400 and had 16 kills. That offensive domination was led by the trio of Nebraska outside hitters: freshman Madi Kubik, junior Jazz Sweet and junior Lexi Sun.

The trio had 13 of the 16 kills and had two combined attack errors. Despite the great offensive showing, Penn State kept up with Nebraska until the Huskers led 16-15.

Sweet and Kubik then teamed up to lead a 9-3 run that iced the match. The two combined for four kills during the run and Sweet was a part of two blocks that stifled any chance Penn State had at a comeback.

The Nittany Lions struggled to hang with Nebraska in the first set but the second set gave Nebraska a reality check. The error-filled second set for the Huskers gave Penn State new life.

Penn State bounced back on defense and had three solo blocks, two of which came in the final part of the set. Sophomore middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord had two blocks that ended any chance of a Nebraska comeback.

The match was tied at one game apiece, and the atmosphere felt more like a postseason match than a regular season match. The last three sets all went down to the wire and both the Huskers and Nittany Lions were playing some of their best volleyball of the season.

Unlike the first two sets, the third set had an almost NCAA Tournament feel as Cook used two challenges.

Cook’s first challenge came when Kubik’s kill was originally ruled out of bounds. If Cook lost the challenge, the Huskers would be down 5-2, but the overturn saw Nebraska down 4-3. Cook challenged again later when junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins’ kill was ruled out.

Once again, Cook won and Nebraska took a 14-10 lead. The extra two points were a major difference in Nebraska’s 25-21 third-set win. Cook’s boldness also carried over to the players on the court.

Nebraska and Penn State players not only were making more plays but were willing to go the extra mile. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles dove multiple times during a rally to keep the Huskers alive.

Every player on the court was taking chances that are typically seen during the NCAA Tournament. Those effort plays gave each offense more chances to convert rallies to kills but also meant that every error had more value than ever.

The deciding factor of the third and fourth set was serving. The Nittany Lions had five serving errors and no serving aces in their third set loss before notching four serving aces in the fourth set.

In the fourth set, those aces made the difference as Penn State won 25-21. Every other part of those third and fourth sets saw almost the same offensive numbers for both sides. A matchup of this caliber had to go to a final set.

The fifth set was somewhat anticlimactic, yet the score tells otherwise. Nebraska won 15-13, but the Huskers controlled most of the set. Nebraska jumped the gun right away with its offense and defense clicking right away.   

Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had the most impressive play of the fifth set, as she won the battle at the net and beat out two Nittany Lions for a block. 

“Nicklin obviously just works her butt off every play,” Sun said. “And if she has to run and go get it, she’ll do that.”

Hames was just one part of the fifth set as everyone lended a helping hand. Nebraska was up 10-5 before it was cut to 10-9, but blocks by Sun and Schwarzenbach extended the lead. Still, Penn State did not quit, and the set went from 14-11 to 14-13.

Up 14-13, Sweet got the dig and passed it to Hames. After that, Hames set up Kubik and Kubik ended the match with a kill. The freshman’s 15th kill ended the hard-fought match and ended the week on a high note for the Huskers.

“To go through all that and still come out here and put smiles on our faces even though sometimes we’re not really feeling a really special thing,” Stivrins said. “I was really proud of the way our team came together.”

Nebraska continues its home stretch with a match against Northwestern at 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.