#3 Pitt (30-3) vs #10 Nebraska (25-7)
First serve: Thursday 12/16, 8:30 pm CT
Streaming: ESPN app; Watch ESPN
Radio: Husker Radio Network
Live stats: Accessible by going to the Huskers volleyball schedule and looking for the live stats icon next to tonight’s match info
Location: Columbus, Ohio
#10 Nebraska volleyball enters the national semi finals as the lowest seed to make the final four in the last seven years. That should make them the underdog, but that isn’t really the case. Nebraska doesn’t feel like an underdog, and they sure don’t act like an underdog. They expected to beat Texas (although many outside their team didn’t), and they look forward to the match up with #4 Pitt and the possibility of the re-match with #1 Louisville or #4 Wisconsin with an expectation to win.
Pitt volleyball poses the same problem, on the surface, as Texas; a high powered offense that must be stopped. Digging deeper, however, the challenge to opposing teams presented by the Panthers is much different. Let’s look at the type of offense each team runs.
Pitt is undersized in most positions. Height means a great deal in volleyball because so much of the game happens above the net. Before we get too excited about their height, Pitt knows they are undersized and use it to their advantage. They run FAST. Opposing coaches must choose which players to double block because you won’t get a double block on all of them. You can’t teach height but you can sure teach speed, precision and skill.
Nebraska beats that speed and skill by drilling balls at the service line. The serve receive passers for Pitt will make errors and pass balls off the net. This is the most effective strategy to slow down the Pitt offense.
Nebraska also wins behind a ton of defense. The block has to set up in front of the hitters and take away that space. The floor defenders count on that space taken away and strictly follow the coaching plan of where to defend on each hitter. Pitt players hit angles others don’t so this isn’t cookie cutter volleyball defense. Be disciplined by being in the highest percentage hit shot areas and dig balls that Pitt doesn’t expect you to dig.
The two setter offense (6-2 offense) that Pitt runs gives them three hitters in the front row at all times, because the setter is always in the back row. Add to these three hitters in the front row a back row option, and the opposition is forced to defend four hitters. And the ball gets to them fast.
Nothing they set goes more than two feet above the height of the net, which is a very fast offense. Most of their sets are a “shoot” set which looks exactly like it sounds: The setter is shooting it to the hitters who are already in motion when the setter contacts the ball.
The three top targets for sets are 6’0’’ Kayla Lund, 5’8’’ Leketor Member-Meneh and 5’11’’ Chinaza Ndee. They each receive fairly equal number of sets depending on the match up with blockers in front of them. In the middle 6’2’’ Serena Gray receives a about 15% of the sets and 6’1’’ Chiamaka Nwokolo about 5%, which is not very many.
Kayla Lund has every shot that an outside hitter needs. She will power through, cut around and hit off of blocks. She is coming back from an injury during the season, so coming into the NCAA Pitt has used her sparingly. She started seeing significant playing time against Penn State in the second round, and hasn’t looked hurt or come off the court since. She will also hit from the back row.
Leketor Member-Meneh is a senior but this is her first season with Pitt. She began her college career and Missouri and was named to the SEC all-freshman team, strikingly similarly to Nebraska’s Kayla Caffey. Member-Meneh transferred to Pitt after the 2020 season. Ever since transferring she has been a mainstay in the Panther offense.
She is an explosive jumper and her arm speed while attacking the ball generates a ton of power. Member-Meneh finds the floor with her hitting. Her hitting percentage against a very good defensive Purdue team was .383. She plays all six rotations and will get set in the backrow. Her serve is also one of the best on her team earning her .28 aces per set.
The speed of the Panther offense is essential for Member-Meneh. She wants the ball and she wants it fast. If she can beat the blockers to the ball location in the air, she likely has only one blocker and with her jumping ability and hitting skill, she earns a kill against one blocker most of the time.
When the second middle, Chiamaka Nwokolo, is front row, the Husker middle blocker can start to the outside early to double block Member-Meneh. Nwokolo isn’t set as often as the other middle, Serena Gray (Penn State transfer). But, the risk is that they do set Nwokolo, and she has no block up to stop her. This will present some challenges for the young Nebraska front line.
You mitigate this by having the left side blockers, Madi Kubik and Ally Batenhorst, help block the middle. They then have to quickly move to block the right side, should the right side receive the set. You can see how Pitt really stresses the opposing blocking scheme.
Chinaza Ndee attacks from the right side most of the time but will come around to the middle position as well. She is an emotional leader on this team and produces 3 kills per set on average. She is able to hit around the block by cutting the ball with sharp angles.
Since she hits the ball so sharply, defenders are not usually positioned to dig the ball either. She hits to locations that other right side attackers can’t. Nebraska’s coaching staff will give defensive positioning on the right side attack extra emphasis during match prep so the highly talented back row for Nebraska are in the right spot to dig Ndee’s attacks.
In the tournament, Pitt has used junior Lexis Akeo and freshman Rachel Fairbanks in the setting position. Earlier in the season they were using senior setter Kylee Levers. Akeo sets from the backrow only and is subbed out when she comes around to the front row. She is from Hawaii, and has played for the Panthers all three of her years so far.
Fairbanks sets while she is in the backrow but hits right side in the front row. She was a big factor in the win against Purdue with 10 kills. Her setting tendency is to set the middles often.
Nebraska will apply a great deal of pressure with their serves. They will target the libero, Ashley Browske as well as each of the outside hitters when they are the front row player. Browske, Lund and Member-Meneh are the primary passers in every serve receive rotation. Browske is most prone to error or to making a poor pass. When Lund and Member-Meneh are front row having to pass and then hit can stress them.
The Huskers will dig a ton of balls just like they did against Texas. They will dig balls that Pitt is not used to having dug. Nebraska’s back court will keep balls alive and give their offense another opportunity to terminate the ball. Statistically, Nebraska averages 17.06 digs per set and Pitt only 13.34. This is an opening to Nebraska’s hitters. Force them to dig balls, reduce hitting errors.
Nebraska wins this match behind the strength of their serve and defense. Serve receive passing must be good but perhaps not as good as it HAD TO BE against Texas. Hitters need to vary shots and force the Pitt defense to perform. We know they have a lot of offense but it can only run if they can dig and pass the ball. This is what Nebraska will disrupt.
No. Name Pos. Ht. Yr. Hometown (High School/Previous School)
1 Nicklin Hames S 5-10 Sr. Maryville, Tenn. (Webb School)
2 Kenzie Knuckles DS/L 5-8 Jr. Yorktown, Ind. (Yorktown)
3 Kayla Caffey MB 6-0 Sr. Chicago, Ill. (Mother McAuley/Missouri)
4 Anni Evans S 5-9 So. Waverly, Neb. (Waverly)
6 Keonilei Akana DS/L 5-9 So. Hauula, Hawaii (Kamehameha Kapalama)
7 Rylee Gray MB 6-4 Fr. Elkhorn, Neb. (Elkhorn South)
8 Lexi Rodriguez DS/L 5-5 Fr. Sterling, Ill. (Sterling)
9 Kennedi Orr S 6-0 Fr. Eagan, Minn. (Eagan)
10 Madi Kubik OH 6-3 Jr. West Des Moines, Iowa (Valley)
11 Lexi Sun OH 6-2 Sr. Encinitas, Calif. (Santa Fe Christian/Texas)
13 Whitney Lauenstein OH 6-2 Fr. Waverly, Neb. (Waverly)
14 Ally Batenhorst OH 6-4 Fr. Houston, Texas (Seven Lakes)
20 Kalynn Meyer MB 6-3 So. Superior, Neb. (Superior)
22 Lindsay Krause OH 6-4 Fr. Papillion, Neb. (Skutt Catholic)
25 Callie Schwarzenbach MB 6-5 Sr. Kearney, Mo. (Kearney)
26 Lauren Stivrins MB 6-4 Sr. Scottsdale, Ariz. (Chaparral)
Head Coach: John Cook (22nd year; San Diego, 1979)
Associate Head Coach: Tyler Hildebrand (2nd year; Long Beach State, 2006)
Assistant Coach: Jaylen Reyes (4th year; BYU, 2015)
Director of Operations: Lindsay Peterson (16th year; Nebraska, 2003)
Video & Administrative Coordinator: Brian Magbitang (2nd year; Wichita State, 2016)
Graduate Assistant: Ryan Vorderer (2nd year; Lindenwood, 2018)
Volunteer Assistant: Kelly Hunter (2nd year; Nebraska, 2017)
No. Name Pos. Ht. Yr. Hometown (High School/Previous School)
1 Lexis Akeo S 5’8’’ JR Kapolei, HI (Kamehameha HS)
2 Valeria Vazquez Gomez OH 6’1’’ RS/SO Manati, PR (Colegio Marista Manati)
3 Cat Flood OH 6’2’’ SO Wilmette, IL (New Trier HS)
4 Ashley Browske L 5’10’’ JR Highland Heights, OH (Lake Catholic)
5 Chinaza Ndee RS/MB 5’11, 5th year Houston, Texas (The Kinkaid School)
6 Kylee Levers S 6’0’’ GR Washington, PA (Chartiers-Houston HS)
8 Anastasia Russ MB 6’5’’ RS/SO Pittsburgh, PA (Hampton HS)
9 Jordan Lockwood OH 6’2’’ SR Friendswood, TX (Clear Brook HS/Navarro College)
10 Rachel Fairbanks S 6’0’’ FR Tustin, CA (Foothill HS)
11 Sabrina Starks MB 6’2’’ SR Springfield, NE (Platteview HS)
12 Emmy Klika L/DS 57’’ FR Novelty, OH (Gilmour Academy)
13 Leketor Member-Meneh OH 5’8’’ SR St. Louis, MO (Lutheran HS South/Missouri)
18 Eliana Posada RS 6’2’’ FR Houston, TX (Obra D Tompkins HS)
19 Makayla Jackson MB 6’2’’ FR Plum, PA (Plum HS)
20 Chiamaka Nwokolo MB/RS 6’1’’ JR Columbus, OH (Bishop Hartley HS)
21 Serena Gray MB 6’2’’ SR Temple City, CA (Temple City HS/ Penn State)
23 Kayla Lund OH 6’0’’ GR Pasadena, CA, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy
Dan Fisher - Head Coach (8th year, Pacific)
Kellen Petrone - Assistant Coach
Lindsey Behonick - Assistant Coach
Kamalani Akeo- Director of operations
Morgan Thomas- Volunteer Assistant