Head volleyball coach John Cook

Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook watches warm-ups before a game against UCLA at the Bob Devaney Center on Satuday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The No. 2 Nebraska Huskers will attend the San Diego Invitational for their first road trip of the season this weekend. The return to San Diego is the first since 2001 for head coach John Cook and his first match against his alma mater, the University of San Diego.

The Huskers’ first match is on Sept. 6 against the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats started the season ranked No. 24, but dropped out of the polls after a loss to Samford.

Arizona was a strong Pac-12 team last season as the Wildcats went 22-11. The Wildcats return most of their players and also find themselves with a freshman libero like Nebraska.

On offense, the Wildcats’ top three hitters are all outside hitters. Junior Paige Whipple leads the team in kills with 2.91 kills per set. Whipple is not their biggest threat as redshirt junior Elizabeth Shelton has a .346 hitting percentage and scores 2.36 kills per set.

The efficient Shelton can cause several problems for Nebraska as the Huskers punish players who hit like Whipple, but an efficient hitter can find holes in Nebraska’s defense. If Shelton is used well early in the match, the Wildcat offense will run much better, but Arizona lacks something Nebraska has: a middle blocker who plays effective offense and defense.

Nebraska junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins is the major difference between the two schools. As a middle blocker, her offensive skills are some of the best in the country as she had two kills per set on a .393 hitting percentage while being double-teamed against Creighton.

The Wildcats’ defense faces a special offensive team where four Huskers average over two kills per set, so how does Arizona counter the heavy hitters? There is no simple way, but Arizona’s freshman libero Kamaile Hiapo will be a deciding factor between a sweep and a competitive match.

Hiapo will have to guide the defense on the court and prepare the defense for all looks at anytime. The Huskers run different pass plays that set up Stivrins or the four outside hitters who rotate in. Despite that, Arizona will need a near-perfect game to upset No. 2 Nebraska, but its offense will be much better compared to the ones Nebraska has seen so far.

The day after Arizona, Nebraska plays Cook’s alma mater and invitational host San Diego. Despite their 1-2 record, the Toreros are ranked No. 25.

Both teams are similarly built as senior middle blocker Megan Jacobsen has offensive stats similar to Stivrins. The outside hitters of each school are both deep, but the similar team makeup has not reflected the performance of each school.

San Diego’s defense has been the polar opposite of Nebraska as it has given up over 13 kills per set on a .309 hitting percentage. Nebraska’s opponents have a .074 hitting percentage and average just over 10 kills per set. 

The 1-2 start does not show that the Toreos’ offense has been great to start the season. The offense has 14 kills per game and a .271 hitting percentage. Senior setter Anna Newsome leads the team as she averages 10.8 assists per set. Her playmaking ability makes Newsome the best setter Nebraska has seen yet as the Huskers have only given up 64 assists in seven sets.

Newsome’s passing has let middle blocker Jacobsen and senior outside hitter Thana Fayad have a field day for hitting. In three matches, the duo has combined for over 90 points and each has over 3.5 kills per set. The trio present the best offense Nebraska has seen but the Husker defense has proven to stifle great offenses.

One of Nebraska’s best assets on defense so far has been its digging ability. The Toreros render about 11.75 digs per set while the Huskers average 17.43 digs per set. San Diego has played one more match, but Nebraska has proven so far that it can respond to any type of offensive play. The digs allow Nebraska to reset the possession and expose the much weaker San Diego defense.

Nebraska’s offense has struggled a bit so far, but it can get back on track against the Toreros. That begins with sophomore setter Nicklin Hames continuing her impressive passing.

Hames’ passing will be needed to combat San Diego as the Huskers try not to get in a rally with a good offense. Nebraska’s defense and San Diego’s offense is the matchup to watch for and whichever team plays to their strengths will win the match Saturday night.

Nebraska plays Arizona on Sept. 6 at 6 p.m. and San Diego on Sept. 7 at 9 p.m.