The October slog is over. Huskers sweep Rutgers, greet November with winning weekend

LINCOLN — There’s little mop-up time in volleyball, a sport in which the score resets to zero after each set, which prevents a team from turning early success into a forgiving cushion used to develop reserves.

So when Capri Davis and Sami Slaughter made their appearances in Game 3 of No. 8 Nebraska’s 25-14, 25-12, 25-13 sweep of Rutgers, it wasn’t just a concession by coach John Cook that the Huskers had the match well in hand. It was an emotional lift to cap a feel-good weekend the team sorely needed.

Nebraska (18-6, 9-5 Big Ten) closed the book on an October slog in which the team lost five of its eight matches by capping the Huskers’ start to November in emphatic fashion. NU followed Friday’s five-set win over No. 7 Penn State by dominating the Big Ten’s last-place team, led by Mikaela Foecke’s 11 kills on 21 error-free swings.

“I think it was just nice to feel that feeling of winning and actually digging down deep with our heart and competing as hard as we possibly can to win,” libero Kenzie Maloney said. “I think that’s just something that we all needed to feel again, and hopefully we can continue to play like that for the rest of the season.”

The Huskers’ .427 hitting percentage Saturday was their best mark in conference play this year, but their defensive performance was notable even for a team that ranks No. 2 in the NCAA in opponent attack percentage.

NU dominated at the net with 12 blocks, giving the team 32 stuffs on the weekend, and held Rutgers (6-21, 0-14) to .024 hitting with just two more kills (23) than errors (21).

Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins made her claim for the Big Ten’s weekly defensive honor with eight blocks, giving her 18 in the two matches this weekend.

“She was amazing. She was a beast,” setter Nicklin Hames said. “I had flashbacks from (Friday’s) game of her crushing some balls and then her bounce-blocking people. I think this whole weekend she really stepped up, and we really needed her to. I think she did a great job.”

At weekend’s end, Nebraska’s opponent hitting percentage for the season was .131, a mark Rutgers didn’t reach in any set. Sahbria McLetchie’s team-high eight kills were each canceled out by an error, and no other Scarlet Knight had more than five kills.

The Huskers nearly doubled Rutgers in digs, winning that stat 37-19 led by 13 digs from Hames. The freshman has now reached double-digit digs in 10 straight matches.

Hames, Foecke and freshman middle Callie Schwarzenbach were in on four blocks apiece.

Prior to the match, Cook wordlessly cautioned the team by placing pictures of mousetraps around the Devaney Center during the team’s Saturday serve-and-pass warm-up practice. A warning not to sleep on Rutgers.

He need not have worried. The latest point in any set where Nebraska trailed was when Rutgers led 6-5 in Game 2. Nebraska erased that in resounding style with an 11-1 run started by back-to-back blocks from Stivrins. Foecke then served one of her four aces, with Stivrins adding another service winner to end the run.

Nebraska has swept Rutgers in all six matches since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten. NU’s hitting percentage over those six matches is .370.

“He was just reminding us to stay focused because it might not be as intense a match, so we don’t want to get caught up in playing down or anything like that,” Maloney said. “So just focusing on playing our game and focusing on Nebraska volleyball.”

The smiles grew even bigger when a pair of reserves put their stamp on Game 3. Davis, a freshman outside hitter from Texas, gave starter Lexi Sun a break in the third set and had four kills on five attempts, showing off what might be the quickest arm on the team.

“She takes big swings and she did exactly what she’s been training to do,” Cook said. “It was impressive, but she’s been practicing like that.”

And Slaughter, a sophomore outside hitter from Harrisburg, South Dakota, did the clinching honors, coming off the bench to record the Huskers’ final two kills on her only two swings of the night. They were Slaughter’s first kills since a Sept. 1 match against Santa Clara.

It was exactly the morale boost Nebraska needed with a four-match road trip on the horizon, starting Wednesday at Iowa. With the October struggles, uncertainty had crept in. The Huskers were dropping tight sets to some of the nation’s best teams, losing five matches to top-10 opponents.

November began with a welcome reminder of what being on the right side of match point feels like.

“It was getting discouraging, and it starts placing doubt, especially in like (captains) Kenzie and Mikaela,” Cook said. “You start questioning everything. I’m questioning everything myself. That’s what teams need. You’ve got to manufacture big wins to get that.”

Rutgers (6-21, 0-14)……………14 12 13

At Nebraska (18-6, 9-5)……….25 25 25

RU (Kills-Aces-Blocks): McLetchie 8-0-2, Marmen 5-0-0, Kojadinovic 4-0-0, Cieslik 2-1-2, Stackhouse 2-0-3, Balyko 1-0-1, Weidt 1-0-3, Swackenberg 0-2-0

NU: Foecke 11-4-4, Sun 7-0-3, Sweet 6-0-1, Schwarzenbach 5-0-4, Stivrins 5-1-8, Davis 4-0-0, Slaughter 2-0-0, Hames 1-0-4, Miller 0-1-0

Set Assists: R 23 (Balyko 19, Kojadinovic 2, Swackenberg 2), N 39 (Hames 30, Maloney 5, Foecke 1, Sweet 1, Miller 1, Smith 1). Att: 8,332

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