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Nebraska vs. Michigan State, 10.11

Nebraska’s Jazz Sweet (12) and Callie Schwarzenbach (25) go up for a block against Michigan State's Meredith Norris (3) on Friday at the Devaney Sports Center.

Kenzie Knuckles was a good outside hitter when she played high school volleyball in Indiana, but the freshman has been grounded now playing the defense-focused libero position for the Nebraska volleyball team.

Knuckles misses hitting, but wasn’t tall enough to play outside hitter at the highest college level. But if you’re going to play libero, this is one of the best places to do it, at a program where the goal is to win national championships and your teammates and fans appreciate great defense.

“I would say the best part of playing defense with this team is just the grit that everyone has,” Knuckles said. “No one really wants to let the ball drop.”

Nebraska is the No. 5 ranked team in the nation with a 13-2 record. It’s a team that, as expected because there are no seniors and two freshmen play a lot, has some flaws. The serving hasn’t been great. The offense at some positions is inconsistent.

But aside from one bad match, when Wisconsin hit .376 and swept the Huskers, Nebraska is playing defense at a high level.

Nebraska ranks No. 5 nationally in defense, with opponents having an average hitting percentage of .139 against the Huskers.

In two wins last week, against Michigan State and Michigan, each team had its worst hitting match of the season against the Huskers. Michigan hit just .019 against the Huskers. Before that, the worst the Wolverines had hit was .178 against Missouri.

Of Nebraska’s 15 opponents, nine have had their worst or second-worst hitting match of the season against the Huskers.

During one play against Michigan, a couple of the Huskers were disappointed after assistant coach Jaylen Reyes, for safety, called the players off from diving into the scorer’s table to save a ball.

“Just defense in general it’s all about being tenacious and having a lot of grit and wanting it,” Knuckles said. “It starts with the block, and we have blockers up there that get mad when they don’t block the ball. Or diggers that get upset when they don’t dig it.”

What Nebraska has done on defense is more impressive because Nebraska’s serving hasn’t been as good as last season, meaning opponents are running their offense more often at full strength.

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Nebraska’s defense is something that has carried over from last season. During the 2018 season, the Huskers held 13 teams to their season-low hitting percentage. Playing great defense is a major part of the culture of the Nebraska program, said outside hitter Lexi Sun.

“I think just having that offensive mentality on defense is what it is,” Sun said.

In the wins against Michigan State and Michigan, the Huskers had 25 combined blocks.

“I don’t think they feel great about how they played against Wisconsin and they took ownership of it,” Cook said. “That’s something we stress. There are nights your offense is going to be off, the setter might be off. It’s just tough, but you can always play defense, and that’s just effort and mindset.”

Lauren Stivrins leads the Huskers with 60 blocks, and Callie Schwarzenbach has 57. Jazz Sweet has 38 blocks, and Sun 37.

Knuckles leads the Huskers with 199 digs. Her average of 3.90 digs per set isn’t far behind the 4.03 digs per set that Kenzie Maloney averaged last season.

Briefly

* Wednesday’s match against No. 20 Purdue is Nebraska’s annual Pink Night for breast cancer awareness. The first 8,000 fans to arrive will receive pink pompoms. Nebraska has won six consecutive matches against Purdue.

* Stivrins continued her strong play with 24 kills and just one hitting error on 35 swings over the weekend. Stivrins has a Big Ten-leading .567 hitting percentage in conference play.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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