On Saturday, November 21, the Husker Womens' Volleyball team traveled to Ann Arbor and defeated Michigan 3-1 (25-19, 22-25, 25-22, 25-19). On Wednesday the 25th, the Huskers hosted the Illinois Fighting Illini and swept them with the the score 25-16 in all three sets.
The Michigan match saw Justine Wong-Orantes return to the line-up after missing the previous two matches with a knee injury and immediately made her presence felt with 15 of the Huskers' 57 digs. She also added two assists on the night.
The Huskers outhit the Wolverines .318-.258 and were led by Kadie Rolfzen (.359) and Kelsey Fien (.262) both recorded 17 kills. Amber Rolfzen had 10 kills on 13 swings with no errors to hit .769, and Mikaela Foecke had 13 kills on 28 attempts with two errors to hit .393.
The Huskers slightly outblocked the Wolverines 10-8, but mostly neutralized Michigan's 6'5" Middle Blocker Abby Cole, who was big concern going in to the match for the Huskers.
Wednesday night saw the Huskers ranked #5 and Illinois ranked #18. The first set was dominated early by the Illini, opening up a 10-6 lead on the Huskers, but from there the Huskers had two different 5-0 runs to take the set 25-16, a score they would repeat twice more.
The second set was never really in doubt for the Huskers, and the third set the Huskers had match point with the score 24-12, and Coach Cook took both Kadie Rolfzen and Kelly Hunter out, giving Alicia Ostrander and Brooke Smith some playing time. The Illini took advantage, and Coach Cook ultimately had to replace both of them with Hunter and Rolfzen to finish the match.
The Huskers far outhit the Illini, .339-.056. Three Husker hitters, Amber Rolfzen (.750), Kelly Hunter (.600), and Cecilia Hall (.538) were above .500 for the night. Amber Rolfzen was also the only hitter with double-digit kills, recording 12 on 16 swings.
The Illini tried to slow down the Husker offense by forcing Kelly Hunter to dig so she couldn't set the hitters, and Hunter had 10 digs for the match. Annika Albrecht also had 13 digs, including four on one long rally. The Huskers had 53 digs to 41 for Illinois.
The Huskers had 13.5 blocks on the night to 10 for Illinois. The middle blockers led the way with seven for Amber Rolfzen and six for Hall. All the Husker blocks on the night were assisted blocks including one triple block, thus the half-block.
After everything, the Huskers find themselves back in the hunt to share the B1G title with Minnesota, who is only one game ahead of the Huskers in B1G play. With Penn State losing last week to Michigan, the Huskers are one match ahead of Penn State, meaning that only the Huskers and the Gophers can win the conference title. It would be shared between the teams if Nebraska beats Penn State in Lincoln on Saturday and Indiana upsets Minnesota in Bloomington Saturday night.
This run by the Huskers, now a streak of nine straight wins, gives a lot of reason for optimism for the #5 Huskers heading in to the NCAA tournament. It's almost assured that the Devaney Center will host the first two rounds before the Huskers would have to travel to either Austin; Des Moines; Lexington, KY; or San Diego for regionals (I'd guess Des Moines) before the Final Four at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.
The team has been dependent on Freshman in a couple of key positions this season, Mikaela Foecke at the outside hitter, and Kenzie Maloney at DS/libero. Foecke struggled in a couple of matches this year, but has been consistent and nearly impossible to dig down the stretch and Maloney's two matches with the increased pressure of the libero position should help shore up the defense when Annika Albrecht is not next to Wong-Orantes.
Nebraska went deeper in the post-season last season than many had anticipated, so there's reason to be hopeful about the potential to make an appearance in Omaha in the third weekend of December, but the Huskers can't be victims of their own expectations. Continued consistent play from the freshman will be a key to a deep post-season run for Nebraska.