LINCOLN — In recent losses to Minnesota and Penn State, Nebraska’s brand as being one of the nation’s best passing and ball-handling teams has taken a hit.
To restore it, coach John Cook is asking his players to think inside the box.
The ideal first contact, either when passing a serve or digging an opponent’s shot, would put the ball a few feet off the net in the middle of the court to allow setter Nicklin Hames to choose between several options for the Husker attack.
To illustrate the passing target, Nebraska has outlined a square, about 3 or 4 feet per side, in blue tape on its practice court. While creativity in serving or attacking can be a bonus, when it comes to passing, Cook wants his back-row players to color in between the lines.
“Just put that ball in the blue box,” Cook said. “That’s what they need to do, with tempo.”
Volleyball teams measure passing on a three-point scale. A perfect pass to the setter’s desired spot gets you three points. It’s zero for letting an opponent land an ace. Cook said Nebraska’s target for the season is to average 2.8 for each pass. Last year, when the Huskers won their second NCAA championship in three seasons, Nebraska hit that mark.
This year, the Huskers are passing about a 2.6, Cook said.
The passing troubles were one of the reasons NU couldn’t close out what would have been a statement win last Saturday at Penn State. Leading 2-1 in the match, the Huskers couldn’t hold on to a 20-17 lead in the fourth set. Penn State ended the set on an 8-3 run, with five points coming from Nebraska errors.
Several of those errors were the result of a poor first touch, which limited Hames’ options to set the ball. Often, it was to a Husker forced to hit against a double block, and the resulting shots were either turned back by the Nittany Lions or sailed out of bounds.
It also limits NU’s ability to involve its middle blockers in the offense. This year, Nebraska’s two starting middles have taken 19 percent of the team’s swings, down from 27 percent last season.
“If we can’t get it in the box in the middle of the court, it’s hard for Nicklin to get her feet there and hard to set the middles and get our middles going,” senior libero Kenzie Maloney said. “Maybe one time out of 10 we get it there, but then, they’re not really in a groove, so it’s hard for them to get going if we’re not digging balls to the center of the court.”
Getting a perfect pass, also known as a “dime” for a perfect 10, not only relies on a sound technique with the arms outstretched to absorb the ball’s force and guide the ball to the setter, but also on rapid communication.
NU assistant Kayla Banwarth, whose responsibilities include coaching the passing, said communication has been an area the team needs to improve. Maloney and outside hitter Mikaela Foecke are the only players who had big roles as passers last year. Transfer outside hitter Lexi Sun and sophomore defensive specialist Hayley Densberger are new to the mix, replacing departed seniors Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend, a familiar duo in the backcourt much of the past four years.
“I know for me, as a passer, I needed to feel comfortable with whom I was passing in order to be a good passer myself,” said Banwarth, a former Nebraska and Team USA libero. “It could be the read factor. Maybe they’re not getting a good read on the serve, trajectory, short, deep, side to side. Then, part of it is technique.”
Banwarth said a trend of recent opponents has been to serve sharp and deep in the court, directly at a passer. It’s a particularly difficult serve to handle because it forces a passer to reverse pivot to get her body out of the ball’s path, but extend her arms perpendicular to her body to contact the ball, which forms what’s known as a player’s “platform.” That technique, Banwarth said, has been lacking lately.
Part of Cook and Banwarth’s challenge this season is both of Nebraska’s outside hitters are somewhat new to being all-around players who are primary passers in three rotations. Foecke added passing duties last season while Sun is in her first year as a six-rotation player and is still developing as a passer. Opposing coaches have noticed and frequently test those two as targets in serve receive.
For years, the NCAA limited substitutions to six per set, forcing nearly every attacking player to spend time in the back row, but when the limit was increased to 15 in recent years, more teams began relying on defensive specialists to pass.
Nebraska, however, remains committed to training outside hitters as passers. Cook said he doesn’t think the team is sacrificing wins now for long-term development, maintaining NU’s best passers and servers will play. He hopes eventually to add sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet as an all-around player by the end of her career.
“Part of it is you get thrown into the fire, and you’ve got to be able to pass, and hit, and kind of do it all,” Banwarth said.
“Luckily, we have Foecke, Hayley, (Maloney). We can pull people out (of passing responsibilities) if we need to pull people out.”
Breakthroughs can come when you least expect it. Banwarth saw it in last year’s victory over Penn State in the NCAA semifinals when the Nittany Lions found success getting Nebraska out of system by serving to the normally reliable Townsend.
The first-year assistant rose off the bench to tell Foecke to step in and start taking serves, but before Banwarth could shout, Foecke made the call on her own to handle passing responsibilities.
“She just dimed the rest of the match,” Banwarth said. “That was pretty cool for me to see. I think last year, and this year so far, she’s held her own pretty good.”