Back row was one of season’s biggest questions, but former specialists have learned, helped Huskers take Big Ten lead

LINCOLN — Casual fans of Nebraska volleyball knew that replacing three starting front-row attackers would be one of the biggest challenges of 2017.

But the team’s die-hard followers — and coaches — knew it was just as important for the retooled back row to get up to speed. It’s possible Saturday night’s comeback win over Wisconsin will be seen as a coming-of-age moment for those new back-row specialists, who helped flip the momentum during a match that seemed well on its way to a loss. After Wisconsin hit .389 in the first set, the Badgers hit .144 the rest of the way in NU’s five-set win.

“Just persevering through that is awesome to see,” libero Kenzie Maloney said, “and it gives us a lot of confidence going into the rest of conference play.”

Maloney is one of four players with new back-row roles this season. Senior Sydney Townsend, previously a serving specialist, has slid into Maloney’s old job, playing three rotations in the back row. Freshman Hayley Densberger, a walk-on from Malcolm, is now a serving sub, and junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke is playing all six rotations after spending her first two seasons only in the front row.

But no Husker had bigger shoes to fill coming into the season than Maloney, who was tasked with replacing All-America libero Justine Wong-Orantes, a four-year starter who handled the intricacies of defense and often made dazzling digs look routine. With Wong-Orantes at libero and Maloney next to her for three rotations as a defensive specialist, Nebraska cemented a reputation as a relentless defensive team the past few seasons.

Now Maloney, a junior from Louisville, Kentucky, is wearing the libero jersey and handling the new tasks that come with it. The libero has to be an on-court chatterbox, coordinating who will take serves, lining up Nebraska’s block and defense, even reading opposing defenses and calling out what shots her hitters should take.

“It’s definitely a lot more pressure because I feel accountable for all the back-row players,” she said.

Maloney said she plays at her best when her instincts come before analytics, so being vocal has been an adjustment. But assistant coach Kayla Banwarth, herself a former standout NU libero, said she’s watched Maloney gradually take more ownership of the vocal parts of the role.

“She wants the same kind of legacy that Justine had, or maybe I had, or Jordan (Larson) had,” Banwarth said. “She wants people to remember her as a great libero and not as someone who just filled in for Justine.”

Opposing teams have noticed the new faces in Nebraska’s back row. Foecke and Townsend were not primary passers before this season, and they’re often the targets of opponents’ serves. It’s led to some shaky learning moments, but one of the musts of her increased playing time, Townsend said, is moving on quickly after an errant pass.

“I just kind of take a big, deep breath,” she said. “I like to look in (the server’s) eyes and intimidate them a little bit because I feel like when I’m serving, I don’t like it when they look in my eyes.”

It was Townsend’s own effective serve that led NU coaches to sit down during preseason practice and agree they needed to get her on the court more. The question: Could Townsend be an able enough defender to play alongside Maloney?

She answered the question against Wisconsin with a career-high 17 digs. She’s part of a unit that is holding opponents to a .150 hitting percentage, right in line with the .147 mark allowed last season.

“Defense is just attitude,” Townsend said. “Getting the ball off the ground.”

No. 14 Michigan State (11-2, 4-0 Big Ten) will provide the next challenge for No. 4 Nebraska (11-3, 4-0) to turn that attitude into results in the teams’ 7 p.m. match Wednesday at the Devaney Center. The Spartans, the Big Ten’s only other team without a conference loss, stunned the league two weekends ago by beating Wisconsin and Minnesota on the road.

The Huskers may not face a taller team all season. Michigan State regularly features five players 6-foot-2 or taller, including 6-6 senior opposite hitter Brooke Kranda, who leads the Spartans with 3.28 kills per set. Kranda had 14 kills against the Huskers in East Lansing last season when NU came back after losing the first two sets to win.

“That’s what you live for as a back-row player, going up against big hitters,” Maloney said. “It’s fun. It’s a challenge, and that’s kind of our job.”

Michigan State at Nebraska

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Devaney Center

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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