Lexi Sun

Nebraska's Lexi Sun bumps the ball during the NCAA semi-finals against Illinois at the Target Center on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Nebraska volleyball team starts the season swinging against two premier opponents. The Huskers host the Husker Invitational as three schools will come to begin the volleyball year in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s first game to kick off the season comes against in-state rival Creighton at the Devaney Center. The last time these two teams played was in 2018 when Nebraska won 3-2 in front of the largest regular season crowd ever for a college volleyball game.

This year’s match will not feature former Huskers Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney or former Bluejays Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth. Foecke, Kloth and Winters had the most points in last year’s  match, with Kloth having a career-high 26 kills.

Another change is that outside hitter and transfer Lexi Sun is playing in this year’s match. Sun’s 3.86 kills per set were instrumental in turning around Nebraska’s season, and her presence adds another offensive player on the court. 

For Creighton, the Bluejays added a player with college experience in setter Megan Sharkey. Sharkey transferred from Rutgers in 2018 and did not play in last year’s match, but showed her quality later in the year.

Eight players from each team who played in last season’s match return and can play in Friday’s match. Two players who shined for Nebraska were outside hitters sophomore Capri Davis and junior Jazz Sweet as the duo combined for 30 kills. 

The return of sophomore setter Nicklin Hames along with middle blockers sophomore Callie Schwarzenbach and junior Lauren Stivrins form the rest of the Husker offense. With these two back, the Huskers bring a great first line of defense.

Creighton does not return the same offensive power, but returns enough pieces to pull off the upset. Lincoln native and sophomore Jaela Zimmerman returns as the Bluejays’ highest scorer. The playmaking ability of both teams could create another five-set match.

The match is going to come down to who can adjust the best in replacing their graduated seniors. The loss of production on both sides hurts the offenses, but the team that adapts better to the changes will win the match. 

The two schools are rivals in many sports and volleyball has become a top sport for both sides. Despite that, the state of Nebraska wins by seeing two ranked, in-state schools play each other.

“I wouldn’t call it a rivalry for us, I would call it more of a great celebration for volleyball in the state,” Husker head coach John Cook said. 

The other match for Nebraska in the Husker Invitational is against UCLA on Saturday night. The Bruins went 13-14 last season and had their first losing record in school history. It was UCLA’s worst season ever for the historically strong program, but the Bruins have a few bright spots on the team.

UCLA’s junior outside hitter Mac May returns after leading the team in kills last season with 3.69 per set. She scored 425 points last season and forms a good duo with junior outside hitter Jenny Mosser.

The Huskers’ match should be a routine win if they are not exhausted from the night before. The Huskers have more offensive firepower with strong outside hitters and return their main setter unlike UCLA. The Bruins defense will have their hands full and their offense plays one of the top defenses from last year.

UCLA has good outside hitters, but Schwarzenbach and Stivrins can counter the UCLA attacks. Along with new pieces on UCLA, the Nebraska defense can stifle the inexperienced Bruins by countering the much weaker offense through blocks.

The Huskers play UCLA on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Husker invitational also features No. 20 Baylor playing against UCLA on Friday and Creighton on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. All games will be at the Devaney Center.