The national championship rematch between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Stanford was like most sequels, pieces of greatness but never living up to the epic original. This year, Stanford won in four sets and controlled the last two sets comfortably while Nebraska dropped its first match this season.
Nebraska’s first loss highlighted the Huskers’ weaknesses but also showed why the Huskers belong in the upper echelon of teams. The loss benefits the Huskers more than a win against another unranked opponent, but Nebraska has to learn from the match with its highs and lows.
Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s match:
Nebraska’s offense is solid, but inconsistent
The Husker offense’s inconsistencies have been an issue this season and it showed up against Stanford.
In the first set, Nebraska’s offense could not get rolling early on. Once Nebraska was down 18-10, the Huskers went on an 8-2 run to tighten the game. Nebraska lost the set 25-21, but it highlighted the ups and downs of the Husker offense.
Nebraska’s most consistent showing was in the second set when the offense hit .278 and barely showed lapses. The Huskers fought back-and-forth with Stanford and showed a glimpse of what the offense can be this season with consistency.
Junior outside hitters Jazz Sweet and Lexi Sun had three kills each and hit efficiently in the set. Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins also had four kills on a .375 hitting percentage. Sweet’s left-handed hitting adds another dimension to the Husker offense and her shots to opponents’ non-dominant side helps tremendously.
Nebraska won that set 25-22 with a 3-0 run to end it. Then the third set came and Nebraska’s offense struggled hitting just below a .000 hitting percentage. A team can not beat a national championship contender and hit this low. A similar performance in the fourth set was Nebraska’s downfall as it lost that set as well.
Before the game, Nebraska’s offense was a question mark. Afterwards, Nebraska’s offense proved it can hang with the elite college volleyball offenses, but the question moving forward is can Nebraska play solid offense for an entire match.
Nebraska is young and it showed
The Huskers are one of the younger teams in the country with no seniors on the roster. On Wednesday, Stanford’s seniors’ experience in big matches outweighed Nebraska’s and saw the Cardinal control most of the match.
Before Wednesday, Stanford played four consecutive top-10 teams and went 3-1 in those games. The Huskers have no seniors and two freshman starters and Wednesday was their first game against a top-10 opponent this season.
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles and the rest of the Nebraska defense made uncharacteristic errors against Stanford. Those errors included bad digs that set the offense behind..
Bad digs mostly happen if the libero or defensive specialist is not doing the digging. That was the case against Stanford as sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had 16 digs, the most for Nebraska, which meant she could not set up plays. Knuckles had 15 digs and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller had 13 digs.
28 combined digs is not bad for that duo, but both defense and offense suffered with these two not being in position at times.
Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik was used heavily against Stanford with 46 attack attempts of which 14 resulted in kills. Despite that, she had 10 attack errors and was clearly overmatched by Stanford senior Kathryn Plummer, who took over the last two sets.
Kubik was worn down by the third and fourth set with 19 attack attempts and five kills in the last two sets. Nebraska’s youth played fine, but against top teams the margin of error is much lower. The two learned Wednesday how narrow that margin is.
This team has fight
The Huskers showed resilience in their first set comeback attempt. Nebraska lost 25-21 and then won the second set. All that seemed to build up for a potentially great third set, but Stanford ran away with that set.
Instead of bowing out in the last two sets when they were down big margins, the Huskers fought in each of the two sets. The Huskers were down 23-15 in the third set and continued to fight. Sun had a block and Sweet notched a kill, extending the game to 24-17. Stanford won 25-17 behind a Kubik attack error but Nebraska showed fight.
Resiliency looks great when someone succeeds with a completed comeback. Resiliency shows at that moment but also shows how someone reacts when nothing seems to go their way. That was the fourth set for Nebraska.
Nebraska was down 11-9 when Stanford went on an eight-point run. Nebraska was down 19-9 and then down 23-12. Instead of just ending the match with little effort, the Huskers competed hard to get the match to 24-16.
The Huskers were only playing for pride in retrospect but sophomore setter Nicklin Hames got two consecutive kills that cut the deficit to 24-16. Her two kills added excitement to the crowd, even if it was fleeting, but also showed that Husker volleyball plays through adversity.