Stivrins, a Husker with Creighton roots, has become a Nebraska leader
LINCOLN — When No. 7 Nebraska and No. 14 Creighton meet in a matchup of the state’s top Division I volleyball programs, there will be no shortage of players from Nebraska and its bordering states.
But the player boasting the biggest cheering section might be a Husker who grew up in Arizona. Those fans, Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said, can be kind of “extra.” As in extra intense, extra boisterous and extra loud.
“Last year, my mom brought this sign to a match that said something like, ‘No longer just a water girl,’ ” she said.
Stivrins said nearly two dozen family members could be in attendance for Thursday’s 7 p.m. match at CHI Health Center, watching the daughter of former Creighton basketball player Alex Stivrins wear the other colors in the rivalry, which resumes after the teams didn’t play last season.
Her uncle, Tim, is a doctor in Lincoln. Lauren’s grandmother, aunts and cousins live there, too. Her godparents live in Omaha and started gobbling up tickets as soon as they went on sale to create a Stivrins family section.
Her father is making the trip up from Scottsdale, Arizona, for a full weekend. After catching up with some friends during the match between Nebraska (4-1) and Creighton (4-2), he’ll stick around for more reminiscing during the football game on Saturday against Colorado. Alex Stivrins played at Creighton for two seasons, but transferred in 1982 and finished his college career in Boulder, averaging double figures in points during two seasons with the Buffaloes.
Stivrins was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 1985 and spent time with five NBA teams along with stints in Spain, Italy and Japan. After a well-traveled career, the family settled in Scottsdale, where Lauren Stivrins and her three siblings grew up.
There may be a few photos of the kids in Creighton or Colorado T-shirts, but Lauren Stivrins said her family encouraged her and her siblings to follow their athletic careers wherever they led.
Her oldest brother Lucas played basketball at Nevada. Her younger sister Amber will play volleyball for Louisville next year, joining former NU assistant Dani Busboom Kelly.
“My dad was really relaxed when it came to the whole recruiting process,” Stivrins said. “He was just kind of, ‘You do whatever you want, and I’ll support you either way.’ ”
Stivrins might have performed the traditional first-year player duties of toting the team’s water cooler while redshirting in 2016, but she’s carried her share of the load on the court ever since. As a redshirt freshman last season, she was second on the team in blocks, and by the end of the year had grown into a player who could deliver in big moments. Her nine kills in the NCAA championship match were second only to final four most outstanding player Mikaela Foecke, who had 20.
It was a solid start to a career, but coach John Cook challenged Stivrins in the offseason. Losing five seniors meant the Huskers would need new leaders. Though it would only be her second season as a starter, team captains Foecke and Kenzie Maloney were going to need her help.
She started by setting an example in the weight room, sharing the team’s lifter of the year honor with Foecke and raising her performance index testing score.
Then she became the big sister of the middle blockers by default. Sophomore Chesney McClellan’s transfer left Stivrins as the only middle with any playing experience. She’s joined by freshman Callie Schwarzenbach and sophomore Anezka Szabo, who played opposite hitter last season.
Stivrins also took on added on-court responsibility as one of the Huskers’ six servers. Through five matches, she’s third on the team in aces (7), two behind Nicklin Hames for the team lead. She’s also raised her attack percentage more than 70 points this year, hitting a team-high .381.
“Lauren’s put in so much work,” Foecke said. “Obviously, she got lifter of the year, so that shows some of it. But now, she’s playing in a whole new role. She’s the M1 and she serves. That’s a big role for her, and I think also she’s developed well as a leader.
“That’s really helpful for us. Kenzie and I really appreciate that because she’s able to help Callie and Anezka and direct them.”
Cook said being able to teach younger teammates is a sign of Stivrins’ growing understanding of the game. Last year, there were times when the coach saw her “just along for the ride.” Now, Stivrins could probably lead a video study session, pointing out the whys of footwork, hand placement and reading an opposing setter.
“Physically, she’s at another level. Mentally, she’s at another level,” Cook said. “She has a mindset that she’s willing this team to wins.”
The Bluejays have plenty of motivation, too, as they seek to become the first CU team to beat Nebraska. The Huskers have taken the first 17 matches in series history, but Creighton has the advantage in experience this season. Senior outside hitters Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth average eight kills per set combined, and the Jays already have big-match seasoning after beating preseason No. 5 Kentucky in the season opener and pushing No. 10 Southern California to five sets.
“The match is going to be good volleyball all around for the state to watch,” said Creighton libero Brittany Witt, an Omaha Marian grad. “So whether you’re cheering for us or for Nebraska, I think it’s going to be exciting and a good match of volleyball. I think it’s just going to be a good one for all of the fans in Nebraska to see.”
The 2015 match drew 10,131. But with a crowd of more than 11,000 expected at CHI Health Center and a television audience on NET, Thursday could mean more volleyball fans will be watching Nebraska and Creighton than ever before.
More eyes and louder noise that both teams are hoping can give their performance a boost. A little something extra.
“It’ll be a huge crowd,” Creighton middle Megan Ballenger said. “It’s the atmosphere you always dream about when you’re thinking about college athletics. I think that’s really, really exciting.”