Nebraska volleyball coaches think improved floor play from their team will come to pass

LINCOLN — At one point during last weekend’s season-opening matches at the VERT Challenge, John Cook looked out at the court to see four players who held new roles as primary passers. He glanced down the bench to assistant Kayla Banwarth and posed a rhetorical question about the Huskers’ reconfigured back row.

How did we get here?

Ballhandling and floor defense have been the backbone of Nebraska’s three straight final four runs, but with two underclassmen stepping into roles vacated by seniors from last year’s NCAA title club and two new outside hitters in the mix, NU coaches are aware it could take some time to build the ballhandling back up to a championship standard.

For four years Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend were a steadying force as primary passers and floor defenders. To fill those spots this year, Cook and his staff have turned to freshman Megan Miller and sophomore walk-on Hayley Densberger. They joined libero Kenzie Maloney and outside hitter Mikaela Foecke in Nebraska’s passing rotation last weekend.

In the Huskers’ 1-1 start, they hit .177, including a .126 mark against Florida that was the lowest attack percentage for an NU team since 2011. That can be at least partially attributed to ballhandling. The Gators and Ducks also combined to serve eight aces against Nebraska.

“You can see we had a lot of indecisions,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of trust that has to be built, but it just takes time.”

Banwarth, a former U.S. national team libero who’s responsible for coaching passers, said while the passing on the opening weekend wasn’t where she wanted it to be, it’s not a surprise some growth is needed with newcomers handling the responsibility for the first time. Outside hitters Sami Slaughter and Capri Davis each were counted on to pass for a rotation during their first significant playing time. Opposite hitter Jazz Sweet also passed a rotation, which she was not asked to do last season.

“It was a little bit substandard, but, again, that’s working the kinks out with new passers passing next to each other,” Banwarth said.

“The first weekend was just sloppy for everybody, and there’s always stuff to get better at and work on.”

Like communication. The back row has to talk constantly, from the time an opposing server starts her approach to the end of the rally. Decisions are made in a split second on who is taking a serve that travels between two players and who is covering what defensive responsibilities. Over time, it can become second nature to players who are comfortable playing together. But until then, no ball can be taken for granted.

An early example of what can happen when communication falls through came on the fourth point of the opening match against Florida when a  serve split the seam between Maloney and Miller and fell for an ace. The Huskers emphasize increased chatter in practice, but it’s still not to the level Cook wants to see, leading him to ask Banwarth what creative incentives  she could recall from her playing days at Nebraska.

“I could just make them bear crawl all the time,” she told him. “That’s what you did with me, and that seemed to work.”

Nebraska’s back-row players hope it doesn’t come to that. Banwarth said despite losing two primary passers, she’s optimistic the Huskers will jell, led by Maloney, entering her fourth year of significant playing time and second season as the starting libero, and Miller, a freshman from Alexandria, Indiana.

Miller was PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 4-ranked libero prospect in the class of 2018, but it wasn’t just a plug-and-play process. In Lincoln, Miller’s faced an adjustment in both technique and tempo. Her club team ran a faster-tempo system than she was used to. She also had been coached in high school to get her body behind an incoming serve or shot to cushion it, while the Huskers train a technique to keep the arms outside the body.

Playing in front of 8,000 fans at the Devaney Center last weekend felt a little like being thrown in the deep end, but Miller credited Maloney with helping her get acclimated to her responsibilities.

“I have major trust in her because I know, even after just playing two games, she’s been huge in helping me in covering so much of the court,” Miller said. “Trust is a big thing in passing. I know she has my back, and that gets my confidence up.”

But she can’t defer to the Huskers’ captains too much, coaches say. During the VERT Challenge, Cook noticed Maloney and Foecke perhaps trying to do too much, leading to some uncharacteristic errors. If more time is the key to developing trust and comfort in the backcourt, No. 5 Nebraska (1-1) should have plenty of repetitions hosting this weekend’s Ameritas Players Challenge, when Nebraska plays three matches in two days.

The Huskers host Ohio (1-2) at noon Friday, followed by a 7:30 p.m. match against Wake Forest (0-3) and a 2 p.m. Saturday meeting with Santa Clara (2-2) at the Devaney Center.

In last year’s Ameritas Players Challenge, the Huskers’ defense smothered their three opponents to a .033 hitting percentage as Nebraska didn’t drop a set. By the end of the year, NU would have the Big Ten’s lowest opponent attacking mark (.154) for the second year in a row.

Miller is eager to help uphold that standard. She came to Nebraska knowing the Huskers’ back row didn’t take a back seat to anyone’s, and if the Huskers were going to challenge once again for the Big Ten title, NU’s passing cubs would need to grow up quickly.

“I’ve always known that defense, serving and passing win games. I knew that it’s just a big deal,” Miller said. “They obviously won a national championship, and you can’t do that without defense because the ball can’t touch the ground. I knew that I was coming into something huge and I had to step up my game.”

Ameritas Challenge: Nebraska vs. Ohio

When: 11:30 a.m. Friday

Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

Ameritas Challenge: Nebraska vs. Santa Clara

When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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