Ya Gotta Love Having Nebraska in the B1G T2N
It’s Saturday night in Rec Hall. I’m sitting with some long time volleyball buddies in the stands, maybe 10 rows from the court, on the Nebraska side of the net. Nebraska is warming up on the court, and 6-1 Jr. OH Hannah Werth is anxiously waiting to clobber another warm-up set. On the drive up, I had hyped Werth’s vertical leap and hitting power to my buddies – regaling them with Werth’s last two swings from Nebraska’s match with Illinois. As she’s running through the hitting line directly in front of us, she’s is more than living up to the hype. It’s one thing to watch what she can do on BTN, it’s another to witness her repeatedly jump out of the building and obliterate a ball in person from perhaps 30 feet away.
We’re all suitably impressed, and thankful for the opportunity to see the likes of Hannah Werth, Lauren Cook, and the entire Nebraska Women’s Volleyball Team play in Rec Hall for the first time in 20 years. We’ve been looking forward to this match since the announcement that Nebraska had joined the B1G T2N – so much so that we were willing to drive 2+ hours through a rare October Nor’Easter, “suffer” through 3+ hours of tailgating in the snow and slush, and shiver for another 3 hours in the snow through a truly offensive offensive performance by the PSU football team, with victory not being secured until time had expired and the Illinois field goal attempt had bounced off the right upright.
Shortly into the first game, Micha Hancock steps back for her first serve of the match. Everyone in the crowd (‘cept maybe the smattering of red-clad fans shouting “Go Big Red”) is anticipating, and hoping for “Serve Go Boom.” Hancock cradles the ball in her left hand, sets her gaze, the whistle blows, and “Boom” – she rips an ace. And then another, and another, and another… The crowd goes nuts – is it really possible that Micha just pulled that off? Those four serves set the tone for the entire evening.
And there was another defining moment like that. Match point – when again, everyone in the stands (save for those in red) is looking for Hancock to “Boom” a final ace to end the match. Micha is standing right in front of us, and my buddies and I are calling for her to just let it rip – which seems to be her M.O. And she does, booming it as hard as she’s hit all night. It barely (but cleanly) clears the net, and caroms off a back row player and into the far stands, punctuating the match with a final huge exclamation point.
In the 35 seasons that I’ve followed Penn State Women’s Volleyball (every season that the team has existed at a varsity level), I have never seen such a high-level match so dominated by serving as the match with Nebraska. The Nittany Lions put on a clinic on how to completely disrupt the offense of the #1 team in the nation. Penn State’s serving dictated the match – not just the 9 aces, but the numerous shanked passes, overpasses, and passes off the net that Lauren Cook continually had to chase down.
Neither team looked particularly brilliant on offense. Certainly there were brilliant offensive plays on both sides of the net, but neither team broke .200 in hitting efficiency. Truly, Penn State’s serving won the day. Nebraska’s middles were frequently taken out of the play, Cook was limited in her options, Penn State’s block had an easy(er) time setting up in front of Cook’s limited choices, and the defense could confidently cover the court behind (around) the block.
And give credit to Cook. She did a remarkable job with the passes she was given. She makes unconventional choices, and delivers the goods. She was fun to watch. She is certainly the most talented setter that Penn State has faced this year – and it’s hard to imagine that there is a better setter in the nation than Lauren Cook.
But Penn State’s serve made it difficult for Cook to find one-on-one situations, and even more difficult for the Nebraska hitters to find open net and open court. Simply put, the reason that Penn State out-hit, out-blocked, and out-dug Nebraska in this match was that they out-served them by a wide margin.
Offensively, Nebraska has more consistent offensive threats, and can mount a more balanced attack than Penn State – that may be in part because Cook can find her hitters better, and deliver the ball to them more consistently than Hancock can. Cook kept everyone involved, while Hancock continued to bypass some pretty good choices in the middle to force the ball outside. True, Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott got the job done, but the middle connection was truly missing. And Penn State cannot always serve like they did in this match.
Nebraska will learn from this match, as will any other teams that watched it, and they will compensate. In the meantime, the Nittany Lions will need to continue to work on serve receive accuracy, middle hitting, communication, while limiting their strings of errors in order to move deep into the post-season. The third game of the match was a reminder of that, as was the match the previous night versus Iowa.
Still, it was a thrill to be in the crowd and witness how far Penn State has come since they played Oregon at the beginning of the season.
And ya just gotta love having Nebraska in the B1G T2N.