The first match of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament isn’t always as easy as it seems like it should be for the top teams in the country, and Nebraska coach John Cook has a few examples of that.
In 2015, the year Nebraska won the whole tournament, Nebraska lost the very first set of its first match of the tournament, against Harvard. Last year in the first round, the No. 1-seeded Huskers had to squeak out a close set, 25-23 against New Hampshire.
And more recently — very recently — this year’s top-ranked team, Penn State, lost the second set Friday against Howard, a 16-16 team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Penn State still won the match in four.
It’s for those reasons that Cook was so happy with how the Huskers cruised past Stony Brook 25-10, 25-14, 25-12 in the first round Friday at the Devaney Sports Center.
“It’s difficult to play these teams because this is their national championship match,” Cook said. “We’re supposed to take care of business. It’s a different level than what we’re used to playing at. They’re not as big and physical. It’s hard to play really, really well, but our team did a really good job taking care of business tonight. You just look the stats, it’s very consistent and so I’m really pleased with how they took care of business.”
The match was going so well that Cook was able to help orchestrate one of the feel-good moments of the season. With a few points left in the final set, Cook sent senior middle blocker Allie Havers into the match. The former NU basketball player is in her first season on the volleyball team. Havers got a standing ovation from some of the fans when she entered the match, and then a huge cheer when she got the first two kills of her college career.
If the Huskers hadn’t been playing well, that moment probably wouldn’t have happened.
“We played really clean volleyball tonight, and one of the top three highlights of the year was seeing Allie get that kill,” Cook said. “She thumped that thing, and the excitement and the energy in the whole building was incredible, especially from her teammates.”
Stony Brook was playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Nebraska caused problems for Stony Brook most of the match with its serving. Nebraska’s nine aces were its most in a three-set NCAA Tournament match since 2007, and just one off the Huskers' season high.
Some of the Huskers’ kills came when Stony Brook was having a tough time passing the Huskers’ serves, so Nebraska kept crushing back overpasses for kills.
“We had them out-of-system essentially the whole night,” said junior libero Kenzie Maloney.
Maloney had a career-high four service aces. The school record for aces in a three-set NCAA Tournament match is five.
Maloney’s serving was a little shaky at the beginning of the season, but now she has 28 aces on the season, the third-most on the team.
“At the beginning of conference play I just felt really confident in my serve, and I think it’s been building ever since then,” Maloney said.
Sydney Townsend and Hayley Densberger each added two ace serves, and Annika Albrecht had one.
Cook wants the Huskers to stay aggressive when serving against teams like Stony Brook, even when an easy serve might get the job done.
“We always want to live on that edge,” Cook said.
Stony Brook coach Kristin Belzung said facing the Huskers’ serves is much different than what they’re used to seeing in the American East Conference.
“To be honest with you, just from a physicality standpoint they’re serving the ball from a different angle, that’s part of it,” Belzung said. “And then it’s just a little different pace than what we’re used to seeing. It’s hard to replicate that.”
Albrecht led the Huskers with a match-high 14 kills. Mikaela Foecke added nine kills for the Huskers. The duo combined to hit .535 in the match without an attacking error.
Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins added eight kills and six blocks in her NCAA Tournament debut.
McKyla Brooks and Maria Poole each had five kills to lead Stony Brook (18-13).