ST. LOUIS — Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook knew his team's opening weekend was going to be a learning experience, both for the players competing together and the coaches learning the right strings to pull with 10 newcomers.
The Huskers showed flashes of excellence but sprinkled in more than a few bouts of inconsistency in splitting a pair of matches Saturday against unranked teams in the Marcia E. Hamilton Classic.
Nebraska fell to Auburn 25-23, 22-25, 25-23, 25-23 Saturday morning before bouncing back to sweep Saint Louis 25-20, 25-16, 25-16.
“I've learned a little more about this team, what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are,” Cook said by phone from St. Louis on Saturday night. “We pass, ball-handle, and serve very well. I think we have a chance to be a very good blocking team. But, when you pass that well, you have a chance to do some nice things. We did some nice things, but we weren't very consistent at it.”
Saturday morning, Nebraska served away its first loss of the season with 14 service miscues.
The Huskers committed service errors on all three of Auburn's set points.
Kelsey Robinson had 18 kills and 18 digs to lead Nebraska (2-1), but also committed four service errors, including miscues to end the first and third sets.
NU continued to struggle finding an offensive rhythm, hitting .218. Junior Mary Pollmiller had 27 assists and freshman Kelly Hunter 19 as the setters continued to split time in NU's 6-2 system.
Sophomore outside hitter Kelsey Fien had 13 kills for NU. Freshman Amber Rolfzen and sophomore Meghan Haggerty each added eight. Husker libero Justine Wong-Orantes had her second straight standout match to start her college career with 18 digs.
The Huskers rebounded against the Billikens, hitting .366, led by 10 kills apiece from Fien and Rolfzen.
NU ran off five straight points to end the first set, breaking a 20-20 tie and cruising the rest of the way.
After admitting both setters struggled at times in the morning loss, Cook said Pollmiller and Hunter took a step forward in Saturday evening's match, where four Husker attackers hit .350 or better.
“They both had some really good moments,” Cook said. “I can tell they're trying to get comfortable. It's hard coming in and out as a setter. They both compete really well, they both serve well, they both play defense. They're still learning how to set our middles. The bad sets got less and less as we went on.”
The middles stood out in the nightcap against Saint Louis. Cecilia Hall had seven kills without an error, and sophomore Alicia Ostrander earned her first start with four kills without an error and a team-high six blocks in replacing Haggerty.
“Cece (Hall) is gaining confidence. We're figuring out how to set her,” Cook said. “She got some big kills later in the weekend. Alicia, I've always said, is a good blocker and she had some good kills tonight.”
The offense came slowly this weekend, showing Nebraska wasn't going to seamlessly integrate so many new pieces from a year ago. But Cook said the coaches' goal is to navigate the Big Ten and be great in December. So taking two steps forward and one back in the season's opening weekend isn't a surprise.
If the stop-and-go weekend in St. Louis can lead to the Huskers deciding on a starting lineup and getting comfortable playing together, the disappointing loss will not have been in vain.
“I think we're going to have growing pains,” Cook said. “We have a lot of new kids. We're trying a two-setter system. It's just going to take a little time to develop it.
“We've got to see how these players respond under pressure, and our nonconference season gets tougher as we go here. We've got some big decisions to make from here on.”
Auburn ............................ 25 22 25 25
Nebraska ............................ 23 25 23 23
UA (kills-aces-blocks): Bright 8-0-1, Culwell 17-1-5, Wintzinger 0-1-0, Jersonsky 9-0-5, Rud 9-0-1, Campbell 5-0-3, Arrington 0-0-0, McDonald 8-0-2, Ivey 0-0-0, Wroblicky 0-0-0.
NU: A. Rolfzen 8-1-1, Hall 6-0-4, Fien 13-0-0, Pollmiller 0-1-0, Haggerty 8-0-3, Robinson 18-1-4, Hunter 2-3-0, Lyles 0-0-0, Wong-Orantes 0-0-0, Broekhuis 7-0-2, Keil 0-0-0.
Set assists: UA 55 (Ivey 26, Wintzinger 18, Culwell 5, Campbell 2, Wroblicky 2, Jersonsky 1, Rud 1), NU 54 (Pollmiller 27, Hunter 19, A. Rolfzen 2, Wong-Orantes 2, Hall 1, Robinson 1, Lyles 1, Broekhuis 1).
Nebraska (2-1) ............................ 25 25 25
At Saint Louis (1-2) ............................ 20 16 16
NU (kills-aces-blocks): Rolfzen 10-0-2, Hall 7-0-1, Ostrander 4-0-6, Fien 10-0-0, Pollmiller 0-0-0, Robinson 9-0-1, Hunter 0-1-0, Lyles 0-0-0, Wong-Orantes 1-1-0, Broekhuis 7-0-2.
SLU: Gagen 0-0-0, Rygelski 11-0-2, Gilbert 10-0-3, Dillon 5-0-2, Boe 1-0-1, Jendryk 2-0-0, Nakatsuka 0-0-0, Sniffen 2-0-1, Church 1-0-0, Ejele 0-0-0.
Set assists: NU 46 (Pollmiller 24, Hunter 19, Wong-Orantes 3), SLU 30 (Boe 27, Church 2, Gagen 1).