LINCOLN — Amber Rolfzen can empathize with opposing attackers who have found it tougher this year to put kills away against Nebraska.
A big swing that doesn’t meet with a resounding termination can lead to confusing — and frustrating — volleyball dissonance.
“I know for me personally when you have a good swing, and the other team just digs it you’re just like, ‘Oh, gosh!’ ” Rolfzen said. “It just gets in the hitter’s head, ‘Why isn’t this ball going down?’ ”
It’s been a look the Huskers have caused frequently on the faces of their opponents through the nonconference season. No. 12 Nebraska has built its 7-2 record heading into Friday’s Big Ten Conference opener at unranked Northwestern (8-4) on the back of a tenacious floor defense that combines exceptional athleticism with a near-manic demeanor that coach John Cook said has become infectious throughout the team.
“We work a lot on it,” Cook said. “I always say you can’t prepare for (facing) a great defense. If somebody is playing great defense on you, there’s really nothing you can do to prepare for it. It’s one way to pressure teams.”
The Huskers rank second in the Big Ten in digs, averaging 16.31 recoveries per set and are the only team in the conference with two players in the league’s top 10 in digs.
Senior outside hitter Kelsey Robinson and freshman libero Justine Wong-Orantes are neck and neck for the team lead in recoveries, each with 127 digs in 32 sets this season. The pair combined for 55 digs in last Sunday’s five-set loss at No. 5 Texas, as Nebraska had five players reach double figures in digs to counter attacks from the big-swinging Longhorns in the Huskers’ near-upset in Austin.
The other members of Nebraska’s athletic freshman class have been just as quick to hit the floor to save a rally. Defensive specialists Brenna Lyles and Alexa Ethridge have become regular fixtures in the back row, and opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen has notched five double-digit dig performances.
“We have really fast players,” Robinson said. “We’re very quick so if we have someone who can even just get a touch on a ball, we have somebody flying after it popping it up next. I think that’s one of the things we take pride in is being a great defensive and great passing team.
“It’s fun playing back row. It’s fun getting those balls up and taking hitters’ best shots.”
It comes as little surprise Robinson has been a catalyst in Nebraska’s scrambling defensive effort. The Tennessee transfer spent two weeks in May training as a libero with the U.S. National Team in California, and if she pursues an indoor career past college, she may likely end up as a defensive specialist.
Nebraska, Cook said, has taken a cue from Robinson, feeding off the captain’s attitude that even in workouts won’t accept letting a ball hit the floor.
“It starts with Kelsey Robinson’s mentality (and) spreads to everybody else,” the coach said. “Justine is a very good defensive player. Then we’ve got Brenna and Alexa. Those guys thrive on bringing defensive energy on the court. I think it’s just a culture we’ve got going out there with how good a floor defense we play.”
One advantage that Nebraska has going into the Big Ten’s opening weekend is a strong defensive effort can offset a night when the Huskers struggle in the attack, especially at some of the league’s notoriously tough road venues. After beginning league play with a 7 p.m. match against the Wildcats, NU plays at No. 24 Illinois (4-6) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Cook was quick to remind the team this week about Northwestern’s 3-1 upset win over Nebraska in Evanston, Ill., in 2011, which came just after the Huskers had clinched the Big Ten championship. Friday, Nebraska’s defense will have to contend with Wildcats outside hitter Stephanie Holthus, who was named national player of the week after averaging 6.18 kills in Northwestern’s three wins last weekend.
With seven of Nebraska’s Big Ten opponents hitting .250 or above, the Huskers might need every last dig to quiet an opponent’s home crowd and get out of town with a win.
That’s how it almost worked in Austin, Rolfzen said. And it provided evidence that Nebraska’s all-in defensive mentality can allow the Huskers to hang with some of the nation’s top teams.
“We executed our game plan with how we wanted to play defense against their outside hitters,” Rolfzen said. “I think Texas kind of proved how we can play and what our defense is like.”