LINCOLN — As Nebraska’s tallest server, Lauren Stivrins has a different view than anyone else, one that maybe leaves her unable to see that a ball put in play by someone standing 6-foot-4 could pose a unique challenge.
After serving a career-high four aces against Ohio on Friday afternoon, she insisted just tries to keep the ball in play like everyone else. That’s easy for her to say, she doesn’t have to try to pass it.
Stivrins was one of three Huskers with at least three aces Friday, as No. 5 Nebraska notched 15 service winners in a pair of sweeps at the Ameritas Players Challenge. The Huskers improved to 3-1 by beating Ohio 25-17, 25-14, 25-17 and taking care of Wake Forest 25-14, 25-11, 25-9 at the Devaney Center.
Tough serving has been a key building block in Nebraska’s two recent NCAA championship teams. Coach John Cook tells his team its best six servers will play. Last year, both of the Huskers’ outside hitters played six rotations and served, leaving Cook to use his substitutions to bring in servers for NU’s middles.
But this season, Nebraska’s back-row specialists are spelling opposite hitter Jazz Sweet and the Huskers’ second outside hitter. Stivrins wanted to step into a serving role, and after some initial nerves last weekend, showed off a hard float serve that made both Ohio and Wake Forest passers sweat on Friday.
“She’s 6-4 so it just comes at a different angle,” Cook said. “She jumps. She goes from 6-4 to, what, 7-4 or 8 feet? That thing’s coming down. It’s just a different angle than some of the smaller players that have to serve.”
Against Ohio on Friday afternoon, Stivrins’ serving broke open the first set. Her 6-0 service run to break an 8-8 tie featured three aces. Coming into the day, she had just two aces in her career.
“I just always knew that I could (serve),” Stivrins said. “I’ve always wanted to be on the court as much as I possibly can. Only playing three rotations, for me to have that opportunity, you really get to control the game back there. That’s something I was really excited for and was hoping would happen.”
Stivrins added nine kills against the Bobcats, hitting .500, and also came up with a match-high five blocks.
But it was senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke who put up the eye-popping stat line against the Bobcats with 17 kills and only one error on 27 swings — a .593 hitting percentage.
“It’s hard not to set her the ball when she kills almost every one that you set her,” NU setter Nicklin Hames said of Foecke. “She kind of holds our team together. If we’re out of system, you give her a high ball and she’s going to get a good swing on it. She really carried our team in times when we’ve needed her to.”
Foecke paced Nebraska (3-1) from the service line in the nightcap with four of the Huskers’ season-high eight aces. Hames added three more in the rout.
“I thought our serving just dictated the whole match tonight and put Wake Forest way on their heels and got them way out of their comfort zone,” Cook said.
“Tonight was the first time I’ve seen us serve like a Nebraska team. That set everything else up, and we passed well and worked on some things. I thought we were pretty sharp.”
After having at least four hitting errors in Nebraska’s first three matches of the season, Sweet had the breakout performance against the Demon Deacons with a team-high 11 kills on 19 errorless swings.
The Huskers committed only eight hitting errors as a team against Wake Forest (0-5) on the way to a season-best .341 attack percentage.
“I just felt as though this game was a little bit smoother. We were more in a rhythm,” Sweet said. “We had looked at video at sets and stuff. We’re just trying to get Nicklin and me in more of a rhythm, so we definitely found that connecting this game.”
By the third set against Wake Forest, it was clear Sweet was getting the faster-tempo sets she prefers. The sophomore from Tecumseh, Kansas, had five kills on six swings in the finale as the Huskers ended the match on a 9-1 run.
“Jazz finally played tonight like we’ve been expecting her to play,” Cook said. “She looked way more comfortable tonight, was in a good rhythm with Nicklin. I think they’re still figuring that out.”
Friday, Hames took a step forward in diversifying Nebraska’s attack beyond Foecke by delivering the more-precise sets needed to spring opportunities for Sweet and Stivrins. Stivrins had 17 kills and hit .583 over the two matches, providing several booming strikes on quick plays out of the middle.
When those set-ups are run ideally, Stivrins doesn’t have too much time to think. She’s often celebrating before the other team realizes the play is over.
Back at the service line is a whole different experience. All alone awaiting the referee’s whistle. When she first started serving in practice in early August it used to make her nervous.
Now, it’s just another way to leave a mark on the match.
“Coach always stresses that you have to be mentally tough because no one else is affecting the play at that time,” Stivrins said. “It’s just you and the ball. Once I got over my nerves the first few games, it got a little bit better.”
Nebraska finishes the Ameritas Players Challenge against Santa Clara on Saturday at 2:00.
Sun closer to return
Lexi Sun took a step closer to making her Nebraska debut as she suited up for the first time and went through warm-ups Friday night against Ohio.
Sun, who has been limited in practice as she recovers from an injury, took a few full-speed swings in a hitting drill right before the match started.
“Tonight, we wanted to get her to go through a warm-up,” Cook said. “She went through a warm-up and hit. We’re just gradually upping it for her each day.”
Ohio (1-3)……………..17 14 17
At Nebraska (2-1)……25 25 25
OU (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Stephens 7-1-2, Jimerson 5-0-3, Kosiorek 5-1-2, Miller 2-0-4, Park 2-0-1, Nelson 1-0-1, Olman 1-0-2
NU: Foecke 17-1-2, Stivrins 9-4-5, Sweet 6-0-3, Slaughter 5-0-0, Hames 2-0-1, Schwarzenbach 2-0-4, Maloney 0-1-0, Miller 0-1-0
Set Assists: O 21 (Giacomazzi 13, Slavic 5, Reining 2, Nelson 1), N 35 (Hames 28, Maloney 3, Foecke 1, Stivrins 1, Slaughter 1, Densberger 1). Att: 7,907
Wake Forest (0-5)…….14 11 9
At Nebraska (3-1)……25 25 25
WF (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Rassenfoss 6-0-0, Della 5-0-0, Mitchell 3-0-0, Saunders 3-0-1, Holt 1-0-0, Moore 0-0-1
NU: Sweet 11-0-3, Stivrins 8-0-3, Foecke 5-4-1, Slaughter 5-0-1, Schwarzenbach 5-0-5, Hames 2-3-1, Maloney 1-0-0, Miller 0-1-0
Set Assists: WF 16 (Holt 13, Saunders 1, Kortekaas 1), N 30 (Hames 26, Maloney 2, Stivrins 1, Kurkova 1). Att: 8,067
Santa Clara at Nebraska
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM