Though the players have changed, Huskers’ dedication to defense hasn’t

Though the players have changed, Huskers’ dedication to defense hasn’t
Lauren Stivrins, left, is one of several Husker volleyball players with better blocking numbers than last season. (KAYLA WOLF/THE WORLD-HERALD)

LINCOLN — Nothing about the Nebraska volleyball team’s offensive numbers reaches out and grabs you.

The Huskers’ .279 hitting percentage is respectable and fourth in the Big Ten. But kills per set? Assists per set? NU ranks in the bottom half of the league in both.

So how does No. 3 Nebraska (13-1, 4-0), with four new starters, still find itself tied for first in the conference standings after a signature win last weekend at No. 7 Illinois? While some faces on the court are fresh, the Huskers’ commitment to defense hasn’t wavered, maintaining the principles that have led Nebraska to three straight final fours.

“Defense is about effort and heart and attitude and mindset,” coach John Cook said Monday. “(Libero) Kenzie (Maloney) initiates all that. I just think it’s the way we train. We make it important, and our players believe in it.”

Cook notices that the teams that win the Big Ten championship are usually among the conference leaders in opponents’ hitting percentage. That’s a good sign for this year’s Huskers, whose .112 opponent attacking clip not only tops the conference, but is the best in the NCAA.

“As long as you play good defense, you have a chance to win whether you have a great offensive night or not,” he said. “That’s what we always want to go in with.”

The Huskers have maintained their defensive prowess despite losing four seniors from last year who were gifted defenders. NU graduated leading blocker Briana Holman and lost back-row mainstays Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend, who combined to average better than five digs per set.

Even setter Kelly Hunter had grown into a solid defender by the end of her career, highlighted by a career-high 23 digs in last year’s national semifinal against Penn State.

Sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet said last year’s departed seniors imparted plenty of lessons before they left, and the defensive numbers in 2018 show that the tutelage took. Nebraska is averaging half a block more per set than a year ago, led by freshman Callie Schwarzenbach, who leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally at 1.66 blocks per set.

The 2018 Huskers also are slightly ahead of last year’s pace in opponents’ kill percentage (the rate at which a team’s attack results in a kill) and opponents’ error rate.

Sweet said Nebraska drills the importance of defense into newcomers’ heads early, setting the expectation right away that if you’re going to be on the floor for the Huskers, you’ll need to prevent points.

“In high school we definitely focused more on the offensive side and on serving and attacking with your serve first,” Sweet said. “Here, we definitely do that as well, but it’s definitely more of a focus on defense and blocking and that more than an offensive look at things.”

Sweet headlines the blocking improvement of NU’s three returning front row players. The sophomore from Tecumseh, Kansas, has nearly doubled her blocks per set this year (0.92 in 2018 from 0.58 last season). Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins also are putting up better blocking numbers than a year ago.

Cook credited his two assistant coaches, Kayla Banwarth and Jaylen Reyes, for helping to maintain Nebraska’s defensive reputation. Both are former star liberos in college, with Banwarth eventually going on to start for the U.S. Olympic team. Reyes, who joined the team this year, was a four-year starter for the BYU men’s team before becoming an assistant for the Cougars.

In Reyes, Cook said he knew he was getting a coach who came from a sound defensive program. Cook tried to ease the transition by bringing back Reyes’ predecessor, Tyler Hildebrand, for a week to work directly with Reyes on NU’s defensive system.

“(Reyes) came from a program that they’re one of the best in the business at it and have been for years,” Cook said. “I knew he was prepared for that. He still has to learn the teams in our conference and how we go about things. But he’s picked it up great. We worked hard to get him ready for that role.”

No agreement on moving start time

Nebraska’s Saturday match against No. 5 Minnesota at the Devaney Center will remain a 7 p.m. start despite Cook’s attempt to move the match to earlier in the afternoon and avoid conflicting with the football team’s 6:30 p.m. game at Wisconsin.

Cook said he offered to move the match to 4 p.m. so Husker fans wouldn’t have to choose between the two contests, but the Gophers declined. Both programs have to agree in order to change a match’s start time.

”The fans pay the bills. You want to keep your fans happy, and they want to be a part of it,” Cook said. “Volleyball is a big deal here, and so is football. Even though (football) is a road game, it’s a big day here in Nebraska on Saturday.”

Like Nebraska, which hosts Iowa on Wednesday night, Minnesota also plays its first match of the week on Wednesday, traveling to Northwestern. When asked by The World-Herald for the Gophers’ reasoning to refuse rescheduling the match time, a Minnesota athletics spokesperson provided this statement:

”Last week the University of Nebraska asked our preference for the start time of this Saturday’s match. After due consideration, our preference was to keep it as originally scheduled. Both of our matches are on the road this week, so we felt it was in our student athletes’ best interests to do this.”

Cook said this is the first time he can recall a visiting team not agreeing to change a match time in order to avoid a time conflict with a Husker football game.

Szabo to miss significant time

A high ankle sprain will cause sophomore middle blocker Anezka Szabo to be out “at least a month,” Cook said Monday.

Szabo, who played in nine matches as a reserve this season, injured her ankle last week in practice when she landed on the foot of a teammate during a drill, according to Cook.

Sophomore Sami Slaughter, an outside hitter who has played in six matches this season, will train as Nebraska’s emergency middle blocker behind Stivrins and Schwarzenbach.

Stivrins, Foecke receive honors

Stivrins was honored by the Big Ten following a performance that put her in NU’s record book. Stivrins was named the conference’s co-player of the week Monday, sharing the award with Minnesota outside hitter Alexis Hart.

Stivrins earned her first career Big Ten weekly honor after hitting .536 over the Huskers’ two matches, including a perfect 1.000 mark with 10 kills on 10 attempts against Northwestern. She became the third Husker in school history to have a perfect hitting percentage on at least 10 attacks.

Her .398 hitting percentage this season leads Nebraska and is fourth in the conference.

Also Monday, Foecke was one of 30 NCAA volleyball players to be named a candidate for the Senior CLASS Award, which recognizes a player with notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition. Creighton seniors Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth also were named candidates for the award.

Foecke, from West Point, Iowa, is one of only four players to twice be named the final four’s most outstanding player (2015, 2017). She holds a 3.649 GPA and is majoring in animal science. Last week, Foecke told The World-Herald she is considering attending veterinary school at Iowa State following her playing career.

Iowa at Nebraska

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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