LINCOLN — You don’t become one of the country’s top blockers — as a freshman, no less — without nailing the footwork required to be a Big Ten-level middle blocker. Callie Schwarzenbach learned that pretty quickly.
Her 6-foot-5 frame gives her the stature to loom over the net to choke off opponents’ attacking angles, but she also discovered that a Big Ten middle needs lateral quickness to zoom from pin to pin, making nimbleness a key. What better reason to warm up with a locker room dance party?
The recent play of the Huskers’ middle blockers — Schwarzenbach and sophomore Lauren Stivrins — has given fans of No. 3 Nebraska (13-1, 4-0 Big Ten) reason to tap their toes. NU heads into Wednesday’s 6 p.m., BTN-televised match against Iowa (10-5, 2-2) at the Devaney Center winner of 18 straight conference matches, with the two middles each putting up eyebrow-raising numbers in two road wins last weekend.
In Nebraska’s 3-1 victory at No. 7 Illinois on Saturday, Schwarzenbach had the breakout offensive match coach John Cook had been looking for with a career-high nine kills on 11 swings while adding eight blocks.
The previous night, she had only one kill on four attempts against Northwestern, prompting teammates to try a new tack to draw out the reticent freshman. They put her in charge of leading a new pregame locker room ritual, a twist on a line dance that freshman Capri Davis introduced from her native Texas.
Schwarzenbach “was definitely pumped up about that, as well as the whole rest of the team was,” NU sophomore Jazz Sweet said. “We were really proud of her on Saturday for playing like that and coming through as a freshman.”
Schwarzenbach’s big match came a night after Stivrins became the third Husker to have a perfect hitting percentage on at least 10 attempts with kills on all 10 of her swings against Northwestern. Monday, the Big Ten recognized Stivrins as the conference’s co-player of the week.
The middles’ 17 combined kills against Illinois gave Cook a glimpse of what he hopes the Huskers’ offense can become. When NU passes well, it gives freshman setter Nicklin Hames several options to set, and going to Stivrins and Schwarzenbach in the middle is a high-percentage play, keeping opposing blockers from teaming up on the Huskers’ pin hitters.
“A lot of middles just think, ‘My job is just to block,’ ” Cook said. “Lauren has a lot of ways she can help our team win. Callie’s learning that she’s got to hit and block. That’s the transition that they go through.”
Cook said, ideally, both middles would average two kills per set, leaving the Huskers’ duo with some room to grow. Stivrins leads the team and is fourth in the Big Ten with a .398 hitting percentage and averages 2.14 kills per set, a mark Cook thinks could go higher with Stivrins being in the front row with Hames for two rotations. The pair’s connection on the slide play, with Stivrins running behind Hames to attack from the right pin, has noticeably improved in recent weeks.
Schwarzenbach averages about one kill per set. She admits that attacking has required the steepest learning curve as she’s moved to college volleyball from high school, where she was the nation’s No. 10 recruit in 2018.
“I’ve been focusing a lot more on just blocking and hitting, but I feel hitting is going to be my biggest adjustment,” she said. “We’re working on it, but I’ve had much more progress with my blocking than my hitting.”
Schwarzenbach has a path to follow in her counterpart, Stivrins, another national top-10 recruit who made her debut in the starting lineup last season and is growing into a do-everything talent. Stivrins has added serving to her responsibilities this season and is perhaps Nebraska’s most explosive leaper after earning the team’s co-lifter of the year award in the offseason.
In Stivrins, Cook sees the potential of a dominant athlete. He borrows the nickname of NFL All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch to spell out that his sophomore could go “Beast Mode.”
“We talk about it with her that she can do that, and she needs to have the confidence that she can do that,” Cook said. “We put her in a position to allow her to do that. She’s doing it from serving, defense, blocking and attacking. This is a new role for her. She has a chance to impact the game. She had three aces against Illinois. That’s beast mode right there for a middle.”
While the middle blockers’ offense is still a work in progress, the pair have helped Nebraska become the country’s top defensive unit midway through the season. NU is holding opponents to an NCAA-low .112 hitting percentage with only one foe cracking the .200 mark. The Huskers also have racked up at least nine blocks in seven straight matches, reaching 12 or more stuffs in five of those.
After putting up at least five blocks in six straight matches, Schwarzenbach leads the Big Ten and is No. 2 in the NCAA with 1.66 blocks per set.
Wednesday, the Huskers’ defense will be tasked with slowing Iowa senior outside hitter Taylor Louis, whose 4.13 kills per set rank fourth in the conference, and Council Bluffs Lewis Central product Reghan Coyle, who had 18 kills in the Hawkeyes’ five-set win over Northwestern last week.
Then, No. 5 Minnesota comes to Lincoln on Saturday featuring one of the country’s top attacks. The Gophers are hitting .300, fifth in the country, with a bevy of offensive weapons and one of the nation’s top setters in senior Samantha Seliger-Swenson.
Schwarzenbach is a self-styled “perfectionist” and can dwell on mistakes to a fault, Cook said. That was true even after a Sept. 14 win over New Mexico in which she had 13 blocks, the third-highest total by a Husker in the rally-scoring era.
“I definitely am too hard on myself sometimes, just because that’s not healthy to always think you’re not good enough,” she said. “It’s good to have some positivity and confidence. But it also pushes me to make myself better and not be too confident.”
There’s a balance to be found for the freshman from Kearney, Missouri, about 25 miles northeast of downtown Kansas City. Somewhere between the self-assurance earned by how far she’s come, and the humility of how far she can still progress.
It’s a fine line for Schwarzenbach to walk. So who better to usher the Huskers through a few dance steps?
“I always feel like there’s something to improve on,” she said. “But it’s easier for me to tell I’ve gotten better at noticing the little things. Yes, I might have done this really bad today, but I also got a little bit better at this.”
Iowa at Nebraska
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM