The opening weekend proved very difficult for the Husker Volleyball team. Opening the season with two losses to Oregon and Florida won’t penalize the Huskers too much by the time the tournament comes, but if they want a premier win before conference play begins on September 22nd, it leaves few options. A two game set against Pac-12 UCLA on September 8th and 9th will be the only other opportunities to get a statement win over a traditional power. September 15th against a quality Kansas State team also remains before Nebraska opens conference play at Penn State.
Nebraska’s performance to start the season was not wholly unexpected. Losing four starters to graduation including three former All-Americans was always going to be hard to replace, but the added difficulty of Kelly Hunter being unavailable due to injury added another key loss to the current roster. Florida and Oregon came in with veteran rosters and the challenge proved a bit too much for Huskers this weekend. However, Nebraska showed flashes of the team they could be this year. It will take time and there are a number of things that the Huskers will need to clean up before tournament time, but that’s what the season is for.
→ Oregon vs. Nebraska (2017-08-25)
Nebraska started off the year against a veteran squad that has been reinforced with new talent. The game showcased many of Nebraska’s expected weaknesses coming into the season. Serve receive and passing were both quite shaky at times. Hunter Atherton filling in for the injured Kelly Hunter struggled to connect with several of her hitters, and Nebraska’s radio team of John Baylor and Lauren Cook commented believing that her sets to Briana Holman were a bit too low. That, in particular, is not surprising when you consider that last year John Cook commented on Kelly Hunter having a similar issue connecting with Holman. Holman, despite standing only six foot one, is an extremely good jumper and this has resulted in her setting being somewhat in consistent during her Nebraska tenure. Annika Albrecht, listed at six foot even, also struggled to terminate from her outside spot. Totaling nine kills, two of which came by way of block error, and seven hitting errors on thirty-nine swings is certainly not the day she was looking for.
There were also many positives in the game which, despite being a three sets to one loss, will be highlighted going forward. Albrecht despite having a rough day offensively showed her prowess as a back row defender. Sixteen digs and a nary an error in serve receive is a day that I believe the Huskers will take moving forward. Kenzie Maloney despite several miscues also had a solid day starting her first game of the season in the Libero spot. Replacing the departed Justine Wong-Orantes was never going to be an easy task, but Maloney has been a solid back row player for Nebraska the past two years including several starts wearing the off color jersey. It certainly wasn’t the day she hoped for, but it was no disaster either. Offensively, Jazz Sweet made her college debut in strong fashion terminating on fourteen of thirty-two swings while committing only two errors. That totaled an Attack WPA of 0.5093 which ranked second on the team. Michaela Foecke despite a slow start ended up acquiring thirteen kills on forty-nine swings while committing three errors. Totaling an Attack WPA of 0.6492 showed Hunter Atherton’s penchant for sending the ball Foecke’s way on high leverage points and Foecke’s own penchant for putting the ball down when it really counts.
→ Nebraska vs. Florida (2017-08-26)
The second game of the year came against a Florida squad who knocked off the de facto favorite for the National Championship in Texas. A squad that was also playing in front of a larger-than-normal home crowd. Florida comes into the season with a senior laden squad that is as experienced as they are talented. Rhamat Alhassan might, as the announcers continuously pointed out, be the best combination of height and leaping ability in the college game right now. However, in this five set match which featured a continuous line of blowout sets, Six foot eight inch Rachel Kramer stole the show. Acquiring twenty kills on only twenty-eight swings with only a single shot hitting the opposing block. Kramer was simply unstoppable for a large portion of the match and hitting an astronomic 0.679 totaled for a game best Attack WPA of 0.7650. An impressive total considering the dearth of high leverage points being played in a five set match. Every set played was a blowout in volleyball terms. Large gaps between the team scores happened early and often. Comebacks were not to be found.
Nebraska despite losing their second game of the weekend had a more solid day all the way around. The Husker starters were led offensively by Michaela Foecke. The junior managed eighteen kills on fifty-nine swings with six errors. Four of her errors came by way of opposition block. An imposing block from Florida caused a number of problems for the Husker hitters. Foecke’s performance, however, earned her the top WPA score for the game at 0.9808. An unusually low score for a five set match where players often come near or beyond the 2.0 mark, but as stated before, this was not a normal five set match.
Beyond Foecke, Jazz Sweet impressed a second time with a sixteen kill performance on thirty-one swings with six errors. Three of those errors hit the Florida block. Defensively despite several impressive serving runs by Florida’s Carli Snyder, none of the Huskers’ back row players recorded a reception error and five different players recorded sixteen digs. Kenzie Maloney led the way with eighteen digs and had a better more consistent day than she did against Oregon. It did appear that there was a lack of communication on the court as other Husker players stepped in front of Maloney on several occasions and collided with her at least once. Better communication might be one of the key needs and notes from the weekend. After Maloney, four Huskers tied at sixteen digs. Albrecht, Foecke, Atherton and DS Sydney Townsend created a log jam for second on the team in digs. Front row defense showed up as well as Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins combined for 7 block assists. Foecke added four block assists herself.
Many of the issues from the Oregon match remained during the match against Florida. Albrecht again struggled to terminate facing a large Florida front line as did the Nebraska middles. The Husker passing while better was still inconsistent. These issues and others will need to be improved if Nebraska wants to make noise in the Big Ten this year.
Looking to the future, Nebraska will have games against UMBC, Oral Roberts, and Saint Mary’s when it returns to play next weekend in the Ameritas Players Challenge. Nebraska will be heavy favorites in each match giving them ample opportunity to work out some of their issues before UCLA comes to Devaney the weekend after.