LINCOLN — Kadie Rolfzen’s move to college volleyball means the level of opposing attackers she’s facing as a Nebraska freshman is more than a slight upgrade from those she saw in Metro Conference matches at Papillion-La Vista South.
But she and the rest of the Huskers have embraced — and honestly, relished — the challenge of squaring off against the top attackers in the Big Ten.
“Coach always challenges us to shut down the other team’s best outside hitter or best middle hitter,” Rolfzen said after NU’s win over Iowa on Wednesday. “Him telling us that as blockers, it forces us to be on our blocking game.
“It’s like a challenge Coach tells us, and I think we always step up. It’ll be a great test for our block and our defense.”
The most recent test Rolfzen is referring to comes Friday when No. 13 Nebraska (14-4, 7-2) finishes the first half of the Big Ten schedule by traveling to No. 24 Ohio State (14-7, 2-7) for a 6 p.m. match.
The Buckeyes have sputtered lately, losing five straight matches, including a three-set defeat at No. 2 Penn State on Wednesday. But Ohio State features the Big Ten’s leader in kills, senior outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary, who ranks fourth in the nation averaging 4.89 kills per set.
Leary, who has taken twice as many attempts as any other Buckeye, is another in a string of elite attackers Nebraska has faced this season. However, the Huskers’ previous performances against other teams’ top weapons provide reason for optimism.
Nebraska has faced seven of the Big Ten’s top 10 leaders in kills, and only one, Michigan State’s Lauren Wicinski, truly put up big numbers to lead her team to a win over the Huskers. Wicinski had 20 kills and hit .293 in the Spartans’ 3-1 victory on Oct. 12.
Some noteworthy defensive performances by the Huskers against top Big Ten hitters:
Ľ Holding Illinois’ Jocelynn Birks, who is fifth in the league with 3.76 kills per set, to a .125 hitting mark in a 3-0 win.
Ľ Limiting Iowa’s Alex Lovell to seven kills with six errors Wednesday. She had been averaging 3.67 kills per set coming into the match.
Ľ Holding Minnesota outside hitter Ashley Wittman, an all-conference pick, to a negative-.150 attacking mark with three kills against six errors in a sweep on Oct. 4.
Ohio State was one of the nation’s surprise successes with a 12-0 start, but the Buckeyes came back to earth once conference play started. OSU’s .160 team attack percentage in Big Ten play is ahead of only last-place Indiana.
Still, NU senior Kelsey Robinson said, the Buckeyes’ up-tempo attack and a notoriously raucous home crowd at St. John Arena have the potential to deal opponents fits.
“They run some crazy systems sometimes,” Robinson said. “I know they serve really fast, and they run a few things out of the serve receive. They run different plays than most teams do. It’s just a little crazier on their side of the court.”
A win Friday would be important as the Huskers head into the second half of conference play, which should be slightly more challenging than the opening five weeks.
The Huskers will play ranked foes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue on the road in the back end of the schedule and close the season with a match against the Nittany Lions at the Devaney Center on Nov. 30.
Bottling up another of the Big Ten’s top attackers would give the Huskers a surge of momentum and likely keep them in the running for a Big Ten title.
“It’s a huge match for us, a huge match,” coach John Cook said. “Fortunately we spent a lot of time Monday and Tuesday preparing for (Ohio State) because they’re a complete opposite of Iowa how they play, how fast they go. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
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