John Cook’s Huskers hit the road, expect the unexpected vs. Iowa volleyball

John Cook’s Huskers hit the road, expect the unexpected vs. Iowa volleyball
Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins had 13 kills and hit .522 against Penn State. Stivrins’ .406 hitting percentage leads Nebraska and is second in the Big Ten, behind only Wisconsin All-American Dana Rettke. (BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

After two home wins last weekend, including a five-set victory over No. 7 Penn State, Nebraska will start its second four-match road trip of the Big Ten season at Iowa on Wednesday night. The Huskers beat the Hawkeyes 3-1 in Lincoln on Oct. 3.

Following the trip to Iowa City, the Huskers will visit two straight top-15 opponents, playing at No. 15 Michigan on Saturday and at No. 12 Purdue on Nov. 16. NU is 3-3 in Big Ten road matches this year, with all three losses coming to teams ranked in the top 10.

What to know about Iowa

Iowa has lost six of its past seven Big Ten matches coming into Wednesday night, with the only win coming over last-place Rutgers. The Hawkeyes rank in the bottom half of the league in most statistical categories, including hitting percentage, opponents’ hitting percentage and blocks.

Nebraska coach John Cook said Monday that the only predictable thing about playing Iowa is to expect the unexpected. The Hawkeyes’ unconventional patterns on offense can leave opposing defenses jumping at air. Cook said he’s prepared to shelve the scouting report from the teams’ first meeting in Lincoln.

“They’ll have something different,” he said. “They might have a different lineup, who knows? We always, in our scouting reports, we go through it, but then say, ‘And be prepared to make adjustments.’”

For all of Iowa’s quick motion, the Hawkeyes’ offense is still carried by their two outside hitters. Junior Cali Hoye leads the team with 3.82 kills per set. Senior Taylor Louis, a preseason All-Big Ten pick, is right behind her at 3.73 kills a set. The pair combined for 23 kills in Iowa’s loss to NU in Lincoln. The rest of the Hawkeyes combined for nine.

“Taylor Louis is a big-time hitter, and Cali Hoye has had some huge matches,” Cook said. “Then, Brie Orr is a really good setter. They’re a little unorthodox in some things that they do. But in the big matches they’ve had, those left sides (Louis and Hoye) have gotten hot.”

In October, Nebraska won three sets against Iowa comfortably, but the Hawkeyes’ 25-23 win in Game 2 was the first set Iowa had taken from the Huskers since 1987, ending a run of 18 straight sweeps by NU.

What to know about Nebraska

November is a month in which, historically, the Huskers have revved up their engine for the NCAA tournament in December. NU has a .903 winning percentage all time in November. Senior captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney are 25-1 in November in their careers.

The Huskers’ 2-0 start to the month last weekend couldn’t have come at a better time after they dropped five of their final seven matches of October, with all the losses against top-10 teams. Foecke and sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun combined for 31 kills in Friday’s win over Penn State and totaled 33 in October’s win over Iowa, with Foecke’s 20 kills leading the way.

Nebraska is still looking for a reliable third scorer with opposite hitter Jazz Sweet’s recent struggles. It may be emerging in the form of sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who had 13 kills and hit .522 against Penn State. Stivrins’ .406 hitting percentage leads Nebraska and is second in the Big Ten, behind only Wisconsin All-American Dana Rettke.

But it was Stivrins’ defense that earned her league recognition on Monday. She had 18 blocks in NU’s two wins, including a career-high 10 stuffs against the Nittany Lions, to earn the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week award.

Nebraska leads the league in blocks in conference matches (2.93 per set) and is holding Big Ten opponents to .144 attacking, the lowest mark in the conference. Iowa hit a season-low .071 against the Huskers in Lincoln.

Kenzie Maloney’s prolific chase showed string of losses didn’t sap Husker volleyball’s energy

LINCOLN — The rules aren’t clear on what would have happened if Kenzie Maloney had tried to drag the chair with her back on to the court, but luckily for the officials, Nebraska’s libero got untangled in time to rejoin one of the longest rallies of the year without them having to make a judgment.

One question that did get answered by Maloney’s chase for a volleyball in the first set of Friday’s win over Penn State was that despite a string of five October losses, the Huskers still had plenty of fire left for the final six weeks of the season.

After the five-set win over the Nittany Lions, NU coach John Cook admitted late Friday night that there were plenty of doubts among the team and the coaches from the recent losses. Spirited effort and incremental improvements Cook saw in practice weren’t translating into wins.

With four straight road matches on the horizon, starting on Wednesday night at Iowa, the Huskers’ hustle needed a validating result, for their coach as much as anyone.

“You always question yourself when you’re not being successful,” Cook said Monday. “Questioning am I training them right? Am I doing everything right? Is there something else I’m not thinking about or is there some way we can be better? It’s just the life of a coach.”

The evidence that Nebraska was still in a fighting mood nearly landed in Cook’s lap on Friday when Maloney’s chase for an errant dig took her crashing into the Husker bench despite Cook’s exhortations for his senior captain to stop and live to play another rally.

Maloney saved the ball, which was sent back over on the third touch by Lexi Sun, then took several seconds to get untangled from a chair on the bench. The rally would go on for 53 seconds, long enough for Maloney to return to the court and dig another ball. The Huskers finally took the point on a solo block by freshman Callie Schwarzenbach.

“My ankle was caught on the chair and I couldn’t get back out there, so I was hoping they wouldn’t hit it to my spot,” Maloney said. “Luckily Mikaela (Foecke) was there. She dug a ball for me.”

Said setter Nicklin Hames: “It was funny, our whole bench was telling her to stop, but she said, ‘I got it,’ and just went for it.”

The play earned Maloney a spot on the “SportsCenter” list of top 10 plays from Friday.

In a season when Nebraska’s offense has rarely fired on all cylinders, the defensive identity that’s carried the team to three straight NCAA final fours has remained intact. In conference matches, NU leads the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage (.144) and blocks per set (2.93). The team’s overall opponent hitting percentage (.131) is second nationally, just behind Florida Gulf Coast.

Maloney’s sprint was part of a strong defensive night Nebraska put up against the Nittany Lions. NU’s 20 blocks, which included 10 from sophomore middle Lauren Stivrins, who earned the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week honor on Monday, were its most in a match since 2006. The Huskers’ 104 digs were the most since 2004.

Penn State’s .114 hitting percentage was its lowest mark of the year, and after taking a 2-1 lead in sets, the Nittany Lions hit .022 and .077 in Games 4 and 5, both of which the Huskers won handily.

Two newcomers have stepped into starting roles and lived up to Nebraska’s defensive reputation. Hames is second on the team in digs, averaging 3.24 per set. The freshman has put up double-digit digs in 10 straight matches. Her first-year counterpart at middle blocker, Schwarzenbach, leads the Big Ten with 1.46 blocks per set in conference matches.

“I’m still trying to figure out why we’re so good defensively,” Cook said. “But, for a freshman, Nicklin’s really good. Of course, Mikaela and Kenzie have been through the wars. They know that. I think our blocking, I mean, we had 32 blocks this weekend (vs. Penn State and Rutgers). That’s a lot of blocks.”

Cook credited first-year assistant Jaylen Reyes, hired away from the BYU men’s team, for making an impact on the blocking.

“That’s why I like hiring guys from the men’s game, because blocking is everything in the men’s game,” he said. “It’s just a mindset and a way we train, understanding that’s a really big part of it.”

No one may have been validated more on Friday than the two senior captains, Maloney and Foecke. The pair only experienced three Big Ten losses in the two years prior to this season, but have had to learn on the job as leaders under the duress of the five October conference defeats.

Maloney had 23 digs on Friday, but Foecke’s line stole the show. Playing in the back row for only her second season, Foecke came up with a career-best 29 digs against Penn State, a total that included some diving saves worthy of their own spots on a highlight reel, plus 15 kills.

“We were joking in the locker room after the game,” Stivrins said, “and I said, ‘Foecke, I take back every unathletic joke I ever made about you. You were lights out tonight.’ And Kenzie, of course, is unstoppable. She is so hungry for the ball. She never lets anything drop back there.”

It’s become a common sight in practice, players pursuing a ball well off the main court despite Cook trying to whistle the play dead to preserve legs and prevent injury.

He has to take some solace in the fact that if the pursuit is dug in that deep, he’s not seeing just a player’s habit, but an identity that wasn’t shaken by the Huskers’ October struggles. Maloney confirmed as much when she was asked to explain what motivated her to give dangerous pursuit on a point so early in Friday’s match.

“Honestly, because Coach told me not to,” she said, “and I wanted to prove him wrong that I could get it.”

Huskers climb, Jays hold steady

After the two wins this weekend, Nebraska jumped two spots to No. 6 in the coaches poll on Monday while Creighton stayed at No. 9.

The Big Ten has five of the top eight and six of the top 12 teams in this week’s rankings. Undefeated BYU (23-0) remains No. 1, followed by No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 4 Illinois and No. 5 Texas.

After the Huskers, No. 7 Penn State, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 9 Creighton and No. 10 Pittsburgh round out the top 10.

The Huskers were also ranked No. 9 and Creighton No. 10 in the NCAA selection committee’s first top 10, an unofficial ranking released Sunday. The RPI has Nebraska at No. 14 and Creighton at No. 16.

Cook praise for freshman Davis

When Lexi Sun finally was healthy enough to join Nebraska’s lineup right before the start of Big Ten play, it meant a reduced role for freshman Capri Davis, who had shone some bright spots early in the season.

Davis, who had a career-high 18 kills in NU’s win over Creighton, had gone more than a month and a half since notching a kill before coming off the bench for a pair of kills Friday against Penn State.

Cook began using Davis as a sub for opposite hitter Jazz Sweet in the one rotation where Sweet plays on the left pin. This allowed the right-handed Davis to take more natural swings on the left side than the left-handed Sweet.

Davis, who Cook said had excelled in recent practices, played for Sun in the third set of NU’s sweep of Rutgers on Saturday, and had four kills on five attacks. At this point, the Mansfield, Texas, native is the Huskers’ top back-up at both outside hitter and opposite hitter with sophomore Anezka Szabo still recovering from a high ankle sprain.

“I love Capri. She comes in and is fearless,” Cook said. “I think that was one of the highlights of the weekend, seeing her get a chance to come in. It wasn’t just Rutgers. She had a couple big kills against Penn State. I just love how she comes in and gets after it. She’s just got a fearless mindset.”

Cook praise for freshman Davis

When Lexi Sun finally was healthy enough to join Nebraska’s lineup right before the start of Big Ten play, it meant a reduced role for freshman Capri Davis, who had shone some bright spots early in the season.

Davis, who had a career-high 18 kills in NU’s win over Creighton, had gone more than a month and a half since notching a kill before coming off the bench for a pair of kills Friday against Penn State.

Cook began using Davis as a sub for opposite hitter Jazz Sweet in the one rotation where Sweet plays on the left pin. This allowed the right-handed Davis to take more natural swings on the left side than the left-handed Sweet.

Davis, who Cook said had excelled in recent practices, played for Sun in the third set of NU’s sweep of Rutgers on Saturday, and had four kills on five attacks. At this point, the Mansfield, Texas, native is the Huskers’ top back-up at both outside hitter and opposite hitter with sophomore Anezka Szabo still recovering from a high ankle sprain.

“I love Capri. She comes in and is fearless,” Cook said. “I think that was one of the highlights of the weekend, seeing her get a chance to come in. It wasn’t just Rutgers. She had a couple big kills against Penn State. I just love how she comes in and gets after it. She’s just got a fearless mindset.”

Husker volleyball

No. 6 Nebraska (18-6, 9-5 Big Ten) at Iowa (13-12, 5-9)

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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