On Huskers' home court, confident Creighton volleyball team plans to stick together and focus

Jaela Zimmerman and the Jays are set to experience one of the game’s biggest home-court advantages. “You’ll mess up, then the crowd’s cheering — but you’ve just got to shake it off,” Zimmerman said. “And our teammates are really good about saying, ‘You’re fine, next ball.’ Just bringing our focus back on the team.”

Creighton’s Jaela Zimmerman stood at the net last year to await the match’s first serve as the record crowd filled the arena for a much-anticipated showdown between two rivals.

It was the Nebraska game — the then-freshman’s first chance to face off against the hometown powerhouse and the maybe Jays’ best chance to finally upend one of the sport’s biggest giants.

Zimmerman was amped up.

But also a little nervous.

OK, maybe incredibly nervous. It was her second career start, after all.

Was she ready for this?

The Lincoln native didn’t end up getting too much time to sort through her feelings. CU libero Brittany Witt received the match’s first serve and passed to setter Madelyn Cole, who lofted the ball behind her — right toward Zimmerman. The 6-foot-2 rookie pounded it for a kill.

“I think it helped that Madelyn set me that first ball. I kind of got my jitters out right away,” said Zimmerman, who ended up with a season-high 10 kills that night. “But the first play — even if you don’t touch the ball — it all gets to be more calming after that.”

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It’s a message that’ll surely be repeated before No. 18 Creighton opens its 2019 season with a road match at No. 2 Nebraska on Friday night.

The Bluejays are set to experience one of the sport’s biggest home-court advantages (NU is 53-4 at the Devaney Center the past three years). They’re playing a team that they’ve never defeated (0-18). And they’re debuting a roster that’s working to replace two of the best hitters in program history, Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth.

But the Creighton players aren’t talking about any of that.

They’re speaking to one another about sticking together and staying focused. They assume that mistakes will come. They just have to keep battling.

“You’ll mess up, then the crowd’s cheering — but you’ve just got to shake it off,” Zimmerman said. “And our teammates are really good about saying, ‘You’re fine, next ball.’ Just bringing our focus back on the team.”

They can certainly gain confidence from their early-season starts each of the past two years.

The Jays came back from a 2-1 deficit to beat then-No. 5 Kentucky in last season’s opening match. They won at then-No. 3 Washington on the first weekend of the 2017 campaign.

But Friday’s challenge is different. It’s Nebraska.

The Huskers are replacing superstar Mikaela Foecke, but reloading has never really been an issue for this program. NU made its fourth straight Final Four last year — it has won two titles during that stretch.

Creighton’s players saw the Huskers’ potency firsthand last year. The Bluejays actually had them on the ropes. Ahead 2-0. But Nebraska rallied for the dramatic five-set win before a pro-Husker crowd of 14,022.

That match has been fresh in the Jays’ minds this week. They know what they’re up against Friday.

“It’ll be a great atmosphere — I think that’s what you think about,” senior Megan Ballenger said. “Last year when we had it at (the CHI Health Center), it was just an amazing atmosphere and a great celebration of volleyball in the state of Nebraska. I’m excited.”

Creighton will remain in Lincoln on Saturday to play No. 20 Baylor at 4:30 p.m. at the Devaney Center.

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