There probably aren’t really rebuilding years for a college volleyball program such as Nebraska.
Too much tradition, too many good recruiting classes, and in some years there are only one or two starters lost. The current year is always the best year to make a run at reaching the NCAA Tournament Final Four, especially when the margin is so small for getting there.
So let’s call this a reworking year for the Huskers, who Friday against Minnesota played five freshmen, two transfers and a seldom-used sophomore.
Whatever this year is, the process appears to be ahead of schedule. There are bound to be off matches ahead in the long Big Ten road — the Huskers’ 10 serving errors Friday, in part because of nerves, show that — but the No. 10 Huskers took another big step by sweeping No. 8 Minnesota 25-22, 25-19, 25-19 in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 8,220 at the Devaney Sports Center.
The Huskers are 3-0 in Big Ten play and tied with Michigan State and Wisconsin for first. Wisconsin and Nebraska play Saturday.
Even Husker coach John Cook said he didn’t think this team was at the point where it could sweep a top-10 team.
“No, no. No way,” Cook said. “But what I told them was, if we could win the big points and put a little pressure on them, we could get them at the end. Last year, if you remember set one (Minnesota) just blew us out of the gym. We couldn’t pass their jump serves, they were just thundering balls. If you let that team get in a rhythm, they’re really tough to stop.”
The bright spots were numerous for the Huskers. Let’s begin with senior outside hitter Kelsey Robinson. Her 21 kills were a season high for a three-set match. She had a season-best hitting percentage of .450, with her kills coming on 40 attempts with only three errors.
Robinson had big kills that Minnesota had little chance to stop. She scored the winning point in all three sets — a kill in the first set, an aggressive ace serve that dropped in the back corner of the court in the second set and a cross-court kill on match point.
Did you find yourself asking where this team would be if Robinson had not transferred from Tennessee in the offseason? Her game-changing plays aside, Cook said Robinson is elevating the play of all those freshmen.
“Kelsey loves to compete, and she’s having an impact on our team with our competitiveness," Cook said. “I think (setter Mary Pollmiller) does, too. I think those two guys are creating a competitive mentality with these young kids.”
The Huskers hit .385. That’s impressive, because Minnesota had been holding opponents to a .138 mark this season, and leads the Big Ten in blocking.
Nebraska outblocked Minnesota 9-2, led by seven blocks from Meghan Haggerty and — get this — four from the 5-foot-10 setter Pollmiller. That’s the competitive mentality Cook was talking about.
Nebraska’s hitting percentage was its best this year and only the third time the Huskers (10-2, 3-0 Big Ten) hit better than .300.
Usually it takes a strong outing from the right-side hitter for a team to have such a high mark, but Amber Rolfzen had just three kills and hit .071.
Kadie Rolfzen had 11 kills and hit .400. Haggerty had seven kills and hit .385, and Cecilia Hall had five kills and hit. 400.
“We have capable hitters in every single position, even in the back row,” Robinson said.
Nebraska also served tough and played great defense to keep the Gophers (14-2, 2-1) from humming on offense. Second-team All-America middle blocker Tori Dixon had 12 kills, but hit only .286. Outside hitter Ashley Wittman averages 3.56 kills per set with a .385 hitting percentage. Friday, she had three kills and hit minus .150.
“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. It’s tough to win matches when you can’t get it to the floor.”
Minnesota has seen only three of the Big Ten teams. Still, McCutcheon believes this about the Huskers:
“I expect they’ll be a handful for any team,” he said.