Nebraska drops season-opening match to Florida in title rematch
LINCOLN — In Nebraska’s recent three-year run with each season ending in a final four berth, the Huskers’ serving and passing have been consistent strengths, putting pressure on opponents to try to make perfect plays that too often resulted in errors.
Friday, the Huskers’ young lineup found out how the other half lives. Whenever Nebraska, ranked No. 2 in the preseason, reached the high-stakes rallies in the season opener against No. 7 Florida, NU was apt to misfire or miscue, giving the Gators and star freshman Thayer Hall the chances they needed for a statement win.
Florida avenged last year’s loss to Nebraska in the NCAA title match, holding off the Huskers 25-20, 25-22, 23-25, 25-23 at the VERT Challenge before a Devaney Center crowd of 8,435 fans who watched Nebraska’s 19-match winning streak come to an end.
Hall, the national high school player of the year last season, provided the Gators’ firepower with 20 kills in her collegiate debut. She was the only Florida player to reach double figures, but the Huskers’ errors piled up around the Gator freshman’s precocious swings.
Nebraska committed 30 hitting errors leading to a .126 hitting percentage, the program’s lowest mark in at least the last four seasons.
“The majority of the reason we lost tonight was errors on our side,” NU outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said. “We had way too many between serving and attacking. That’s something that’s very controllable by us.
“I think tonight maybe we went for it a little too much and took, in the words of Coach (John Cook), ‘mindless swings.’ We needed to put the ball in play and keep the rally going.”
Foecke included herself in that analysis. The All-Big Ten senior had 11 kills and seven errors on 47 attacks to hit .085. Sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet led Nebraska (0-1) with 13 kills, nine of them coming over the final two sets when the Huskers finally found a gear after hitting .063 over the first two sets.
None of the struggles stunned Cook, who said practices showed his hitters’ tendency of committing errors. NU started three freshmen, setter Nicklin Hames, middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach, and defensive specialist Megan Miller. Sweet also stepped into a passing role, and the inexperience showed.
Too often, Hames had to chase down passes. The nation’s top-ranked setter recruit in 2018 showed some jitters of her own, Cook said, setting balls higher than ideal for her hitters.
“That was one of my worries was just being high error, and part of that was our ball handling and passing wasn’t superb like it needs to be,” Cook said. “We had a hard time getting in a rhythm offensively.
“Tonight, we never really pressured Florida very much because we’d make an error to give them something back. They were pretty comfortable all night. We kept erring to give them that comfort level.”
Nebraska avoided its first home sweep since 2014 with a late burst to win the third set. Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins scored on a slide play to break a 23-23 tie, and the freshman Miller fired an ace out of a timeout to let the Huskers force a fourth set.
The Gators appeared to have the finale well in hand, leading 21-16 before the Huskers made one final push. Sweet scored two kills and joined Stivrins for a block of Florida’s Hall to pull within 21-20.
But another costly error broke NU’s momentum with senior Kenzie Maloney serving just long to put the Gators up by two, and the teams traded sideouts for the match’s final six points.
The clincher came from Hall, who was unfazed when libero Allie Gregory threw up a high bump set to the freshman in the back row. Hall, who’d routinely scored from the back row all night, spotted an opening past Stivrins and buried the ball to the middle of the court on the 60th swing of her first college match.
“My mindset going into a game is just whatever it takes, that’s what I’m going to do,” Hall said. “If 60 swings is it, then that’s what it is. If it’s less or more, then that’s what I’m prepared to do.”
On the other side of the net, the Husker freshmen absorbed a loss in their debut. Hames had 35 assists and a team-high 19 digs, often charged with defending shots from Hall down the line. Schwarzenbach had five kills and four errors, and Capri Davis had seven kills and seven errors after replacing starting outside hitter Sami Slaughter.
Even the Huskers’ returners were “pressing” a little bit, Cook said, but allowed the growing pains are understandable after NU graduated two top passers and a three-year starter at setter from a year ago.
The Huskers can’t get much more seasoned overnight before playing No. 18 Oregon (0-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday, but they’ll have one more learning experience than they did the day before.
“This is how you build a team,” Cook said. “We’ve got to work these things out and figure things out. But I was really pleased with how we competed.
“We’ll be better tomorrow. We’ve got to look at our preseason like we’ve got to be great by Big Ten. This is going to be a process we’re going to have to go through.”
Smith denied transfer waiver
Nebraska’s veteran depth took another hit Friday when Cook announced after the match the NCAA had denied senior Brooke Smith’s transfer waiver.
Smith transferred back to Nebraska after spending last year at Kansas State, but as of now is not allowed to play or travel with the team. She did not suit up for the match against Florida.
Cook said NU will fight the decision.
Florida (1-0)...............25 25 23 25
At Nebraska (0-1).......20 22 25 23
UF (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Hall 20-0-1, Sokolowski 8-0-1, Kramer 6-0-6, Kellum 6-0-3, Carlton 4-0-5, M. Monserez 3-1-0, Gregory 0-2-0, A. Monserez 0-2-0.
NU: Sweet 13-0-2, Foecke 11-0-1, Davis 7-0-1, Stivrins 6-0-6, Schwarzenbach 5-0-3, Slaughter 4-0-1, Hames 2-2-3, Maloney 1-2-0, Miller 0-1-0.
Set Assists: UF 46 (M. Monserez 23, A. Monserez 13, Gregory 7, Hammons 1, Hall 1, Carlton 1), NU 44 (Hames 35, Maloney 7, Foecke 1, Stivrins 1)