In 2019, Nebraska was swept three times by Wisconsin. One area where the Huskers were dominated was serving. Across those three matches, the Badgers had 16 aces and 21 service errors compared to Nebraska’s one ace and 19 service errors.
Nebraska was a -18 on the serve against Wisconsin. Despite being a two seed, Nebraska ranked 298th in aces per set in 2019. In Big Ten play, Nebraska’s ace-to-error ratio was about .56, or for every error, Nebraska would get about .56 aces.
The other top three Big Ten schools in 2019 — Minnesota, Penn State and Wisconsin — all were above the 60% line when it came to aces over errors. The Badgers finished with a .75, .07 higher than the 2019 NCAA average of .68 and .12 points higher than the Big Ten average of .63 that year.
“It’s a love-hate because you want to have a great serve, but at the same time you don’t want to make an error,” junior setter Nicklin Hames said at a March 24 press conference. “We’re trying to get to the love-love part of it when you’re going back there and trust it.”
The Huskers beat themselves more than the opponents did while serving in 2019. Now, in 2021, Nebraska gets 1.50 aces per set on the season. That ranks 93rd in the entire country and third in the Big Ten, while its serve to error ratio has jumped to .72.
Nebraska’s statistical improvement in the area comes down to confidence gain and quickly forgetting the service errors which inevitably occur.
Freshman defensive specialist Keonilei Akana is Nebraska’s most reliable server. Akana leads the team in aces with 20 and is in the Big Ten’s top 10 when it comes to aces per set at .36.
Akana’s rise has greatly improved the Huskers’ ability to snatch free points. The freshman’s arrival also happens to combine with the much-needed improvement from the sophomores on the team.
Head coach John Cook also credits the serving turnaround to sophomore outside hitter Madi Kubik and sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles’s improvements.
Knuckles has more aces than errors this season, the only Husker to do so. That’s a continued improvement from her 2019 campaign where she led the team in conference play with 17 aces on 28 service errors.
The libero’s 13 aces to just nine errors makes Nebraska’s serve far more lethal. As Hames described, Knuckles’ arsenal of different serves makes opposing teams guess where the ball goes more than a monotonous server.
As a freshman and six-rotation player, Kubik had six aces and 27 service errors during 2019 conference play. A major piece of Nebraska’s rotation finished with four times as many errors as aces.
In 16 2021 matches, Kubik has 12 serving aces and 18 errors. The biggest reason for this improvement in Kubik’s serving is the significant decrease in errors. Kubik finished with 42 service errors in 2019, third highest on the team and the worst ace-to-error ratio of the three six-rotation players at .333 last season.
In 2021, that ratio has doubled to a .666 ace-to-error ratio. Kubik attributed her jump to getting down a routine in practice.
“Coach always talks about trusting our training,” Kubik said at a March 16 press conference. “Serving, take a deep breath … Having a serve routine is really important to be able to do that in the tough moments.”
Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun is doing everything expected of a senior six-rotation outside hitter in what could potentially be her last season. She leads the team in total swings, is Nebraska’s top blocker excluding the three middle blockers and, to round it out, is one of the team’s best servers.
Sun’s 19 serving aces, along with an ace-to-error ratio of .70 make her a weapon no matter her spot on the court. That helps smooth out a solid rotation, along with senior defensive specialist Hayley Densberger playing a role when she substitutes in just to serve.
That comes back to what Cook has wanted from his rotation, which is wanting to have six servers at all times on the court. The much higher ratio helps show that there is proof that the players are trusting the training they have referenced this season.
Service errors will always be a part of any team. In the end, all a player can do is either think about the probability of falling short or trust the serves they’ve practiced hundreds, if not thousands, of times in practice.
“The serving game has been a battle for us this year,” Hames said. “It’s been a huge emphasis these last couple of weeks, going back is really trusting our serves … When we get teams out of system, we’re really hard to stop, and that’s when we win games.”