Some of the changes the Nebraska volleyball team is trying to make with its offense this season — a few more high-risk, high-reward sets and players attacking from different spots on the court — is understandably a work in progress in the early stages of the season.
During the first few matches, there were a few times when the setter and hitter didn’t connect very well.
But one player who has benefited quickly from the changes is Lauren Stivrins, Nebraska’s two-time All-American middle blocker.
Stivrins dominated on Friday with 18 kills to lead the fourth-ranked Huskers to a 25-19, 25-27, 25-19, 25-14 win in No. 4 Nebraska’s first home match of the season.
For the first time in decades, the Huskers (3-0) played a home match without thousands of fans watching due to Big Ten rules in place due to COVID-19 limiting the crowd to primarily the families of the players and staff.
Only twice on 20 attempts did Stivrins not get a kill. With just one hitting error, she had an .850 hitting percentage. Stivrins had a remarkable start to the match with 12 kills on her first 13 attempts.
But this wasn’t even the best hitting match of her career by percentage. In a sweep of Northwestern in 2018, Stivrins was perfect, with 10 kills on 10 attempts.
Stivrins got her kills on tips, on quick sets in the middle, and one of those oh-my kills on a slide attack down the line that even made setter Nicklin Hames cover her mouth in amazement.
Nebraska associate head coach Tyler Hildebrand — he was once on “Volleyball” magazine with the headline, “Hands of Gold,” because he was a great setter — is working with head coach John Cook to make some changes to Nebraska’s offense, and Stivrins is a fan of the changes.
“Basically what we try and do now is Nicklin tries to get me the ball, and anyone the ball, from wherever, and we are always up,” Stivrins said. “That’s pretty much how it goes in practice. You’ll see her flinging it in from 10 feet off the net, and 15 feet off the net. It’s nice to have Tyler here to change things up.”
Cook said Stivrins’ outstanding match was a product of a few things. First, Hames isn’t just setting Stivrins in the predictable moments. Second, Cook thinks Stivrins is on a mission.
“I’ve seen Lauren this past year, and I think you guys have seen it in her interviews, she loves this team and she’s a captain,” Cook said. “I’ve never seen her work so hard since she’s been here. Tyler has helped Nicklin to be comfortable getting her the ball. She’s forcing (Stivrins) a little bit, but Lauren is also doing a really good job of managing the game and when it’s not there doing something smart.
“Her volleyball IQ and her work in watching video and studying great players, it paid off tonight.”
The Huskers needed what Stivrins was providing, especially early in the match when Nebraska was making a lot of hitting errors and wasn’t as good on defense.
Cook has a good idea of why Nebraska had a slow start to the match.
“This is our first home match that we’ve played without 8,000 fans, so we probably underestimated the impact that would have on our energy,” Cook said. “We were just flat. They were excited to play, they were just flat because I think they’re used to feeding off that energy. We’re going to have to learn how to play without those fans.”
Due to Big Ten rules, the attendance was limited to mostly family of the players and coaches from both teams. There were about 120 spectators with ties to the team, and another 100 in attendance as part of the TV crew, media or event staff. The families were seated in the second level of seating above the team benches.
Because it was so quiet the TV announcing crew of Larry Putney and Kathi Wieskamp could be heard at times talking during the broadcast in the sections near the TV booth.
During the match when the players served it was eerily quiet in the arena, before the chatter of the players and coaches talking during the rally kicked in.
“There were a few times between plays were it was silent. You could hear a penny drop,” Stivrins said.
After Friday’s match, the players were discussing if they’d like to use some of the fake crowd noise like other sports have used this season.
This temporary normal is an adjustment for everybody.
“I think the first two sets we were a little quiet, and waiting for something to happen, and I think it was that we were missing our fans,” Stivrins said. “We finally got it together, and figured out how to bring our own energy, which I think is going to be very important moving on the rest of the season.
“It’s different, and it’s sad, but it’s what we have to do to play.”