After starting the year with six straight wins over unranked opponents, the Nebraska volleyball team faces much stiffer competition at home this weekend against No. 5 Minnesota.
The Huskers and Golden Gophers will both enter Friday’s match at the Bob Devaney Sports Center undefeated. Unlike Nebraska, however, Minnesota has not had a canceled series so far this season. Minnesota’s eight wins are tied with Wisconsin for first in the conference.
Nebraska’s toughest test of the season comes amid an unusual week. The team was unable to fly home immediately following last Saturday’s match against Rutgers, forcing it to host a practice in the Scarlet Knights’ gym early Sunday. Then, right off practice, the Huskers were able to catch a trip back to Lincoln.
Being unable to practice on Monday, head coach John Cook was greeted with a Devaney Center without power on Tuesday morning. The city-wide rolling blackouts had put more strain on an already volatile schedule.
“I’m hopeful today that the power doesn’t go out and we actually can practice,” Cook said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference.
Senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said Tuesday that the travel disruption last weekend was unfortunate, but the team made the most of it.
“We hung out [Sunday] night, and a bunch of the girls went to go get ice cream together,” Stivrins said. “Some of us had a little movie night in our film room.”
After a period of unexpected leisure time, Nebraska’s focus moved to one of the best teams in the country. A mixture of decorated veterans and highly touted freshmen has the Golden Gophers back in the top five of the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
Cook, who is in his 21st season as Nebraska’s head coach, recognizes the challenge ahead. The Golden Gophers are a sound unit with talent all over the court, and boast one of the country’s best players in senior right-side hitter Stephanie Samedy.
“Like always, they’re very low error,” Cook said. “They’ve got some great arms. [Taylor] Landfair is a great arm, and Samedy, right now, is probably the best player in the country.”
Samedy has earned a remarkable set of accolades in her career with the Golden Gophers. The six-rotation opposite has been an All-American in every year of her career, including first team honors in her freshman and sophomore seasons. Samedy has been the Big Ten Player of the Week for the last two weeks, and she was also named AVCA National Player of the Week following Minnesota’s road series against Purdue. In 31 sets played this year, Samedy has put down 133 kills on .257 hitting.
Samedy is not the only major contributor to return from last year’s team that made the Final Four. Redshirt senior middle blocker Regan Pittman is coming off a first team All-American 2019 campaign. Her numbers have dropped slightly so far this season, though, with a .292 hitting percentage on only 46 kills.
The Golden Gophers have gotten plenty of offensive production from junior outside hitter Adanna Rollins, who was an honorable mention All-American as a true freshman in 2018. Rollins has 88 kills on .258 hitting this year. She is also second on the team in digs.
Minnesota’s backcourt, like their offense, is loaded with proven talent. Junior libero CC McGraw was an honorable mention All-American last year after landing on the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2018. She leads the team in digs this season, despite missing time due to injury in the Purdue series. Sophomore defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly has also been in a starting role since her freshman year and filled in at libero during McGraw’s absence.
Despite the plethora of returning talent, Minnesota’s new starters have been equally influential. The Golden Gopher offense is led by true freshman setter Melani Shaffmaster. She was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after Minnesota’s series at Purdue. The six-foot-three setter is aggressive on offense, compiling 28 kills on .321 hitting this year.
Shaffmaster’s true freshman counterpart in the starting lineup is outside hitter Taylor Landfair. The top-ranked recruit is second on the team in kills. Landfair scored a career-high 22 kills in Minnesota’s last match, a five-set victory over eighth-ranked Penn State.
Competing with a team packed with All-American talent will require Nebraska to play their best volleyball of the season. Cook described his team’s serve reception this year as “average,” saying that passing would be the biggest key to the team’s future success.
With the lighter part of the schedule behind them, a gauntlet of elite opponents begins Friday and Sunday with home matchups against the Golden Gophers.
“It’s time to step up,” Cook said. “The honeymoon part of the season is over.”