CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The fears that a quick turnaround would hurt the Nebraska volleyball team Saturday at Illinois proved quickly and emphatically to be unfounded.
The No. 12 Huskers tied their season high with 11 blocks, and the team's left-side hitters continued to put up big numbers in a 25-20, 25-14, 25-22 sweep at No. 24 Illinois.
The win gave the Huskers a road sweep of the Illini for the second straight year, finished a 2-0 start to Big Ten play and came in a match that started about 19 hours after Friday night's win at Northwestern.
Freshman outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen and senior Kelsey Robinson again did most of the damage for the Huskers. Rolfzen led all players with 14 kills while Robinson recorded her seventh double-double of the season and third in a row with 10 kills and 15 digs.
Robinson had taken 48 swings against Northwestern, and Nebraska coach John Cook said he figured Illinois would key two blockers on Robinson. So the game plan was to have setter Mary Pollmiller spread the wealth and get other hitters involved.
“(Robinson) still found a way to get some kills and do a nice job,” Cook said. “Once we started setting behind in our middle attack, it opened up some things for her in Games 2 and 3.”
Middle blockers Cecilia Hall and Meghan Haggerty were two of the beneficiaries, combining for nine kills while hitting .500. Hall, a sophomore from Sweden, set a career high with eight blocks, and six Huskers had a hand in at least one stuff.
Cook said Hall “had a pretty good weekend overall.”
“She's going to get better,” he said in a phone interview following the match. “You have to remember, she got a late start playing volleyball. She started late in high school, and she still does freshman-like things, but she's a physical presence at the net.”
Nebraska's 11 blocks were the most for the team in a three-set match this season and tied the mark the Huskers had set in a 3-1 win over St. Mary's on Sept. 12.
How dominant were the Huskers on Saturday? The latest juncture in any set that Illinois (5-7, 1-1) led was a 10-9 advantage in the first set. But Nebraska reeled off five straight points to lead 14-10. The Illini made one final challenge in the opening set, but Kadie Rolfzen finished a long rally with a kill out of system to give NU a 20-17 lead.
Nebraska jumped to a 6-1 lead and easily controlled the next set, then led 20-14 in the third before Illinois went on a 6-2 run to narrow the final margin.
Nebraska's performance may be even more impressive considering the team didn't arrive in Champaign until 10 a.m. Saturday after flying in from Chicago. The Huskers had to return to the team hotel following a quick walk-through practice, then come back to Huff Hall for the 4 p.m. match.
“We had a horrible serve and pass (practice), so I didn't know what to expect,” Cook said. “But we came out and had our best serving and passing match of the year.”
The Huskers kept Illinois off-balance at the service line with six aces while other tough serves often had Illini setter Alexis Viliunas scrambling for the second touch.
A pair of road wins to open conference play gave Cook little to complain about, though the Huskers could use some more balance on offense. Robinson and Kadie Rolfzen combined to take 60 percent of Nebraska's attacks over the weekend.
Another player to get going would be freshman opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen, who had four kills but hit .048 Saturday and managed only nine kills in two weekend matches.
Amber Rolfzen did make her mark defensively, however, adding five blocks Saturday. Cook credited the Papillion-La Vista South product for an effort that largely neutralized Illinois' leading attacker, Jocelynn Birks. Birks led the Illini with 13 kills but hit just .125 and cooled off considerably after six kills in Game 1.
Amber Rolfzen “got blocked a couple times at Northwestern and got tentative,” Cook said. “But I was really proud of her — she still blocked, got some great digs and passed well. She was still able to affect the match, but we need a right-side attack.”
Nebraska registered its seventh consecutive win over Illinois and takes an unblemished league record into home matches against No. 9 Minnesota and Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday at the Devaney Center.
That's something to celebrate, Cook said, after seeing how things played out in the opening weekend of conference play. No. 1 Penn State dropped its home league opener to Michigan State on Friday, and No. 10 Michigan lost its first two Big Ten matches on the road.
“Let me tell you right now: Any win in the Big Ten this year is going to be a big win,” Cook said. “There are no gimmes. It's just going to be survive for the next nine weeks and just find as many wins as you can.”
Nebraska (9-2, 2-0) ............................ 25 25 25
At Illinois (5-7, 1-1) ............................. 20 14 22
NU (kills-aces-blocks): K. Rolfzen 14-0-1, Robinson 10-2-2, Haggerty 5-0-3, A. Rolfzen 4-0-5, Hall 4-0-8, Pollmiller 1-1-3, Ethridge 0-2-0, Lyles 0-1-0. Totals 38-6-11.
UI: Birks 13-0-1, McMahon 9-0-2, Strizak 5-0-0, Mayers 4-0-1, Dorn 3-0-1, Stark 1-0-0, Criswell 1-0-0. Totals 36-1-3.
Set assists: NU 33 (Pollmiller 27, Wong-Orantes 3, Haggerty 2, A. Rolfzen 1), UI 34 (Viliunas 26, Beltran 7, Birks 1).