Sun’s debut a bright spot for Huskers
LINCOLN — In keeping with John Cook’s poker-playing analogy, if the ante goes up when the Nebraska volleyball team starts Big Ten play this week, the Huskers got a new trump card last weekend when sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun made her Husker debut.
After missing NU’s first three weeks while recovering from an unspecified injury, the Texas transfer made a splash in the final two matches of the Husker Invite with a total of 22 kills on an efficient .356 hitting.
Just as impressive, Cook said on Monday, was Sun’s defensive prowess. The plan was always to allow Sun to play in all six rotations, which includes three stops in the back row to serve, pass and defend. She picked up 12 digs and was Nebraska’s most efficient server according to the team’s internal efficiency measure.
“She’s quick, she gets up, she’s got a really fast arm and she sees really well,” Cook said. “You can see her flying around in the back row. She made some great ups (digs) Saturday night. Maybe Megan (Miller) can make those, but nobody else on our team can go get balls like that. She can move.”
Sun made her highly anticipated debut on Friday night against New Mexico, matching Mikaela Foecke with a team-high 13 kills while hitting .346. Cook said despite the solid numbers, he thought Sun displayed some nerves in her first match. He felt she looked more composed in Nebraska’s sweep of Missouri State on Saturday when Sun had nine kills and hit .368 on 19 attempts.
“It’s nerve-wracking when she’s been out for a long time and it was your first time in there,” Cook said. “That’s why that Red-White (game) is so important for our players to get through that nervousness, anxiousness playing in Devaney.”
Adding Sun as a second six-rotation outside hitter also cuts down on the use of a defensive specialist. Sophomore Hayley Densberger and freshman Megan Miller both were needed to serve and play back row when Cook subbed out either Capri Davis or Sami Slaughter, whoever was playing as Nebraska’s second outside hitter. Now, the Huskers may only use a defensive specialist for opposite hitter Jazz Sweet, leaving Densberger and Miller to compete for the job.
It also leaves Cook with added flexibility to keep experimenting with a double-substitute to improve the Huskers’ blocking in the sixth rotation without bumping up against the limit of 15 substitutions per set.
Nebraska, which moved up to No. 3 in Monday’s coaches poll, finished its nonconference schedule having improved in some key metrics over last season. The Huskers have better marks after 10 matches this year in hitting percentage (.282 in 2018 compared to .253 in 2017), opponents’ hitting percentage (.109 to .137), and blocks (2.7 per set compared to 2.2) than a year ago.
Perhaps most important, NU’s record is two games better this season (9-1) than in 2017 when the Huskers went into the Big Ten schedule at 7-3 after losses to Oregon, Florida, and Northern Iowa. This year, NU again lost to the Gators in the season opener, but haven’t dropped a match since.
Friday’s conference opener against No. 18 Michigan (11-0) will put the Huskers’ progress to the test. The Wolverines swept their first 10 opponents this year before dropping a set in a 3-1 win over Notre Dame on Sunday.
Michigan leads the conference in kills per set (14.79) and digs per set (16.82) and features an experienced lineup in which three of the team’s top four kill producers have been in the program at least three seasons.
However, Friday will be the Wolverines’ biggest test of the season after playing eight of their 11 matches at home. NU is the first ranked opponent Michigan will face.
They’ll get plenty more in Big Ten play, where the odds are good a team will face at least one top-25 foe each weekend. Monday’s coaches poll had Big Ten teams occupy five spots in the top 10 and two more in the top 20.
Even after adding Sun to the lineup and hitting .371 over three wins last weekend, the Huskers are still a work in progress, Cook said. A new starter shuffles the relationships that affect the team’s passing, blocking and defensive responsibilities.
And NU’s newcomers will learn quickly that the Big Ten doesn’t contain many patsies that let you get away with trial and error.
“It’s a 10-week grind, so hopefully our freshmen figure it out this week,” Cook said. “We’ve got to execute and perform at a higher level to hang in the Big Ten and compete for championships.”
Schwarzenbach gets honor
One Husker freshman who put it together last weekend was middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach. After averaging 2.7 blocks per set in the Husker Invite, the Kearney, Missouri, native was named the conference’s defensive player of the week.
The 6-foot-5 Schwarzenbach had a career-high 13 blocks on Friday against New Mexico, tying the NCAA high this season for blocks in a four-set match.
Little shuffling in top 10
After the top 10 underwent a face-lift last Monday thanks to a series of losses, this week’s top 10 remained pretty stable with no shocking results.
BYU and Stanford stayed in the top two spots, followed by No. 3 Nebraska, No. 4 Penn State and No. 5 Texas, which wasn’t much penalized for losing two matches last week to Stanford.
Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Pittsburgh and Creighton rounded out the top 10.
Both Illinois and Pittsburgh made it through their nonconference schedules undefeated at 11-0. Chris Tamas’ Fighting Illini will have that perfect record challenged in Friday’s Big Ten opener at No. 16 Purdue, which is also 11-0.