LINCOLN — Three matches into the Big Ten season is too early to make any definitive statements about where Nebraska will finish in the league race. But Friday night the Huskers made one — they're probably going to be a big part of the conversation.
No. 10 Nebraska handled some early nerves and put on an attacking clinic in a 25-22, 25-19, 25-19 sweep of No. 8 Minnesota at the Devaney Center.
Nebraska (10-2, 3-0 Big Ten) hardly bore the look of a team 12 matches into a season featuring 10 new players. NU hit a season-high .385 against a Minnesota team that is an outside favorite to reach the final four and had been holding opponents to a .138 attack percentage.
How exactly did Nebraska put up such a number against the Gophers?
“I'm really not sure,” NU coach John Cook said. “I'm shocked we hit that well, especially with Amber (Rolfzen) only getting three kills. Usually when you put up numbers like that, your right side has a big night, which opens everything up. I just think they're trusting our training. We train to be out of system. We train to be against three blockers. They did a good job of following the game plan, our training, and how we prepped for them this week.”
Kelsey Robinson again proved to be a major part of the game plan Friday. The senior outside hitter showed off the full variety of her shots and racked up a match-high 21 kills while hitting .450.
But it was the Huskers' balance that kept Minnesota (14-2, 2-1) off balance. Three other Nebraska attackers hit at least .385. Setter Mary Pollmiller had plenty of options to choose from in handing out 39 assists.
Freshman Kadie Rolfzen had a double-double with 11 kills and a match-high 12 digs, while hitting .400. Middle blockers Meghan Haggerty and Cecilia Hall combined for 12 kills and a .391 clip.
“We have capable hitters every single position, even out of the back row,” Robinson said. “Every night, someone can be on fire and take off. Then, everybody else helps. That's just how we hit so well because if one thing isn't working we go back or go to a middle. Everybody can put balls away.”
While the Huskers put Minnesota on its heels offensively, the Huskers won the battle above the net with their block. NU outblocked the Gophers, the Big Ten's leader in stuffs, 9.5-2.5 with a season-high seven blocks for Haggerty. Amber Rolfzen and Pollmiller each added four.
“We prepared a lot this week just working on blocking,” Haggerty said. “We knew where they were going to hit their strong shots so you could see that tonight.”
It was a win that exceeded all expectations. The Gophers came into the match with the nation's fifth-highest attack percentage (.330), and Cook told his team if the Huskers could keep sets close into the later rallies, then the Devaney Center crowd of 8,223 might lead to some late magic.
In Game 1, it came after the Gophers rallied from an 18-14 deficit to tie it 22-22 on a kill from All-America middle blocker Tori Dixon. But Amber Rolfzen had the answer with a kill on the next rally and then added a service ace to give the Huskers game point. Robinson finished off the opener with an emphatic kill off a Minnesota overpass.
Nebraska rolled to a .464 hitting mark in Game 2, taking control with a 7-2 run midway though the set, then finished the sweep with Robinson taking over at the end. She had four kills after Minnesota cut the lead to 18-17, including an out-of-system kill on match point.
Dixon led the Gophers with 12 kills, but her .286 attacking mark was well below her season average of .476, which ranks second in the conference.
Minnesota's other key weapons couldn't make up the difference. Sophomore outside hitter Daly Santana had 10 kills, but hit .214, while preseason All-Big Ten senior Ashley Wittman had just three kills against six errors.
“I thought in the serve receive element of the game we struggled a little bit,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said “Because we couldn't get in system, we struggled to kill the ball, and that's tough to win matches when you can't get it to the floor.”
Cook has worked hard this season to manage expectations for his young team, and said following the match “no way” did he expect a sweep. But even he couldn't deny the stakes of this top-10 meeting, which keeps NU unbeaten in the Big Ten going into Saturday's 7 p.m. match with No. 23 Wisconsin at the Devaney Center.
“This was a huge match for both teams, a huge match,” Cook said. “Eight thousand (fans), TV, the whole show. It's been hyped up all week, and it's huge.”
Minnesota (14-2, 2-1) ............................ 22 19 19
At Nebraska (10-2, 3-0) ............................ 25 25 25
M (kills-aces-blocks): Dixon 12-0-1, Santana 10-2-1, Nora 6-0-0, Wittman 3-0-0, H. Tapp 3-0-1, Palmer 2-0-1.
NU: Robinson 21-1-1, K. Rolfzen 11-0-0, Haggerty 7-0-7, Hall 5-0-1, A. Rolfzen 3-2-4, Pollmiller 2-0-4, Wong-Orantes 2-0-0.
Set assists: M 36 (Palmer 32), NU 48 (Pollmiller 39).