LINCOLN — Go back a month. At his Nov. 5 weekly press conference, Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook implied he thought his team could buck the conventional wisdom that a team’s potential and habits are set in stone going into the final month of the season.
“It’s hard to get better,” Cook said four weeks ago. “This time of year you’re trying to just maintain.”
But this year’s Huskers, with so many young — but talented — players, still had room to grow. He ticked off a number of areas he’d targeted for improvement in November, better efficiency from outside hitter Lexi Sun and opposite hitter Jazz Sweet, more offense from freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach, and perhaps most important, the continued growth of setter Nicklin Hames, whose performance had see-sawed during the first year a true freshman had the sole responsibility of running NU’s offense.
A month later, with Nebraska riding a 10-match winning streak into this weekend’s NCAA regional round, Cook could check off almost all of those boxes as the Huskers have hit their stride going into to December.
Nebraska has made its greatest leap over the last five matches, all sweeps. While Sweet and Schwarzenbach still have a tendency to disappear offensively, their growth as defenders is part of the reason NU has the nation’s lowest opponent hitting percentage. Sweet’s eight kills on .316 hitting in Saturday’s second-round win over Missouri was her best offensive match in a month.
Sun has reduced her errors over the past month, committing no more than four attack miscues over the last five matches. She’s hitting .340 in the stretch, pulling her season hitting percentage to .200, and is averaging three kills a set, giving a glimpse of the long-hoped-for potential fans felt when the former national No. 1 high school recruit transferred from Texas.
But it was Hames that Cook named two weeks ago as the player who’d exhibited the most improvement. The freshman from Maryville, Tennessee, has directed an attack that has hit over .350 for five straight matches. And she’s ably delivered sets on some new offensive wrinkles Nebraska has installed to get Sun and Mikaela Foecke more one-on-one opportunities.
Perhaps Hames’ biggest improvement has been in her connection with Nebraska’s middle blockers, particularly Lauren Stivrins, who is in a stretch as good as any NU middle over the last decade. In her last five matches, the 6-foot-4 sophomore is hitting .541, averaging three kills per set.
That has raised her season attack percentage to .411, which, barring a very poor weekend in Minneapolis, will make Stivrins the first Husker since Brooke Delano in 2010 to finish the season hitting over .400.
“I think Lauren’s awesome,” Cook said after Stivrins had 12 kills in Friday’s first-round win over Hofstra. “She makes Nicklin feel invincible setting her because Nicklin can miss it, and Lauren can still do something with it.”
With Foecke, Sun, and the emergence of Stivrins, Nebraska has three dependable offensive options in most rotations, and if the Huskers can get even marginally better play from Sweet, NU will have its attack at its most dangerous just in time for the biggest weekend of the year.
“I think it’s important for everyone to get going,” Sun said, “and for us to use all of our hitters and all of our weapons so the blockers don’t really know where we’re going.”
Opponent watch: Kentucky
Nebraska will face a familiar opponent in Friday’s 1:00 p.m. regional semifinal in Minneapolis. The Huskers beat Kentucky 3-1 in last year’s regional final on the Wildcats’ home court.
Kentucky, coached by former Husker assistant Craig Skinner, is every bit as formidable as a year ago, after going 18-0 in SEC play as part of a 23-match winning streak.
The Wildcats are led by the SEC player of the year, junior outside hitter Leah Edmond, who averages 4.63 kills per set and is hitting .294. Edmond had a match-high 20 kills in last year’s loss to Nebraska. She leads an attack that is hitting .305 as a team, which ranks fourth in the country.
But the Wildcats can also bring it defensively, led Gabby Curry, who earned SEC libero of the year in her first year as a starter. Kentucky held Purdue to just 27 kills on .144 hitting in a second-round sweep of the Boilermakers.
First weekend roundup
The Minneapolis regional is the only one in which all four top-16 seeds advanced, with No. 2 Minnesota, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 10 Kentucky each advancing without dropping a set. Only No. 15-seed Oregon was pushed beyond the minimum, pulling out a five-set win over Baylor in the second round.
Four top-16 seeds were eliminated on their home floors with No. 13 Central Florida getting knocked out in the opening round by Florida Gulf Coast. No. 9 Creighton was swept by Washington, No. 11 USC was swept by San Diego, and No. 12 Pittsburgh lost a five-setter to Michigan.
The Wolverines’ win gave the Big Ten six teams in the sweet 16, most of any league.
While Husker fans were glued to NU’s match against Missouri on Saturday, many were assured to have an eye on the score out of Champaign, Illinois, where former Nebraska assistants Chris Tamas and Dani Busboom Kelly were coaching against each other in the second round. Both were members of Cook’s staff on Nebraska’s 2015 NCAA title team.
Tamas’ Illinois team, the No. 3 seed, picked up a 3-1 win over Busboom’s unseeded Louisville. The Cardinals actually had five more kills in the match than Illinois, but Louisville committed a whopping 41 hitting errors, nearly half of which (19) came on Illinois blocks. Fighting Illini senior middle Ali Bastianelli had 10 stuffs.
Illinois’ reward? Facing Marquette in a match that will start at 11 a.m. Friday so that it can be shown on ESPNU.
Illinois was the only top four seed to drop a set on the opening weekend. No. 2 Minnesota breezed past Bryant and South Carolina, No. 4 BYU swept Stony Brook and in-state rival Utah behind 37 kills on .380 hitting from outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry, and No. 1 Stanford had no trouble with Alabama State and Loyola Marymount.
The Cardinal, who could be headed for an elite eight showdown with Penn State, hit .436 over their first two tournament matches.
NCAA Sweet 16: Nebraska vs. Kentucky
When: 12:30 p.m. Friday
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM