On Dec. 15, 2018, Nebraska volleyball’s miraculous postseason run ended with a national championship loss to Stanford by three points. A controversial challenge in the fifth set that went in Stanford’s favor and a controversial locker room picture after the game overshadowed the first, five-set national title game this decade. Now, No. 1 Nebraska takes on No. 2 Stanford in the biggest college volleyball game of the season.
“The three points are just the difference between the national championship and not,” junior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “That’s been our motivation all summer… Just never forgetting those three points and just working to get better every day so that it won’t happen again.”
This time, the two schools meet in the Devaney Center, marking Nebraska’s second consecutive season with a national championship rematch.
The rematch will be a matchup of youth versus veterans. Both schools return the majority of their team, but Stanford brings back four senior starters, while the Huskers lost two of its most experienced players in seniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney.
Stanford lost senior middle blocker Tami Alade and replaced her with UCLA graduate transfer Madeleine Gates. Unlike Stanford, the Huskers replace two spots with freshmen and have their toughest test of the year.
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles will have her hands full against a ferocious Cardinal offense. Stanford averages 15.14 kills per set, among the best in all college volleyball, and is led by seniors Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris. Plummer, a two-time national player of the year, is on a tear with over five kills per set and a hitting percentage of .350.
Knuckles’ responsibilities in the back row will be stretched to the limits Wednesday, as she will be taking kill attempts from the elite Stanford hitting line. Knuckles’ digs will be instrumental in not only preventing points but in setting up the Husker offense for a return play.
Passing has been something Nebraska head coach John Cook heavily emphasizes every practice, and good passing will be the key to beating Stanford. That starts with Knuckles and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller digging well. A successful dig can give other players, like sophomore setter Nicklin Hames, the opportunity to set up Nebraska’s offensive attack.
“The little things like our communication and our errors … I think if we cut that stuff down, then it’ll look a lot cleaner and the Nebraska volleyball way,” Hames said. “I think it’s just playing at a consistent level for an entire match.”
Nebraska’s offense has struggled to stay consistent this season. The Huskers can hit over .400 in one set and then have a negative hitting percentage in the next. The massive disparities have to stop or the Huskers will be in trouble early. Hames’ goal is to put the ball in great spots for the outside hitters and middle blockers to overcome the tall Cardinal defense.
As seen last year, the two schools have a bellcow for attacks. Foecke had 71 attack attempts in the national title game, and Plummer had 59 attempts. The question for Nebraska’s offense so far is who will take over Foecke’s spot. That responsibility comes down to junior outside hitter Lexi Sun. Sun’s performance in the 2018 match was pitiful with seven kills, six attacking errors and a .030 hitting percentage, so an improved performance is needed.
“Coach stresses the importance of playing fearless,” Sun said. “I think that allows me to play more confident for sure.”
This season, Sun has taken over Foecke’s role and has had 251 attack attempts, including 63 attempts against Loyola Marymount. Unless there are drastic changes, Hames is going to be primarily setting up Sun. Sun does not have to hit efficiently but has to be a big enough force to open up opportunities for other players.
The three other outside hitters will need to beat Stanford’s taller defenders one-on-one. Junior Jazz Sweet and freshman Madi Kubik are important factors in doing so. The two have more one-on-one opportunities and have to punish Stanford in those match-ups.
Stanford is one of the only teams in the country to have two 6-foot-6 outside hitters, but its middle blockers are much smaller. Nebraska absolutely has to win at the middle blocker spot. In the title match, junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins torched the Cardinals with a record 19 kills and .615 hitting percentage.
As seen in Minnesota’s upset against Stanford, the Gophers’ middle blockers were the deciding factor. The two middle blockers both hit over .350 and had 21 kills combined, while Stanford middle blockers Holly Campbell and Gates had 16 combined kills and neither hit over .300.
Stivrins has proven to be a menace against Stanford, but sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach is Nebraska’s x-factor. Schwarzenbach maintains her defensive dominance, but her offense is what is missing for the Huskers. If Schwarzenbach’s offense gets going, Stanford’s defense won’t be able to double-team Stivrins.
In by far the toughest match of the season, the Huskers, as Cook said, need to take their play to another level. The Husker defense versus the Stanford offense will be a battle of the titans, but Nebraska’s offense will be the determining factor in whether the Huskers walk away with a win or loss Wednesday night.
“I’m just looking forward to the opportunity for our team to be able to play against them — for us to see where we’re at,” Cook said. “We want to play with the best.”
The match is on Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. and will be televised on the Big Ten Network.