No Lauren Stivrins. No problem for the Nebraska volleyball team.
The All-American middle blocker was on the sidelines wearing street clothes as the fifth-seeded Huskers swept Baylor 25-21, 25-17, 25-19 on Sunday afternoon at the CHI Health Center.
With the win, the Huskers (16-2) advance to their ninth straight regional final to face No. 4 Texas on Monday.
Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun said she was inspired by how the entire team stepped up to fill the void left by Stivrins.
“I think that we've proved a lot of people wrong,” she said. “I think a lot of people were skeptical, especially the other side, as to how we were going to show out without Lauren ... It was really awesome to be able to play for each other and play for her.”
Stivrins was ruled out of the match Sunday morning in a joint decision between NU coach John Cook, the trainers and Stivrins. Cook didn’t go into specifics about Stivrins’s injury or how long she’s been dealing with it. He said he didn’t know her availability for the regional final.
“She may have to play on Monday,” Cook said. “So we'll see tomorrow.”
In Stivrins’ place, Callie Schwarzenbach started her fourth match of the season. The 6-foot-5 junior finished with three kills and a team-high five blocks.
Meanwhile, Sun carried the load on offense with a team-high 12 kills on a .345 hitting percentage and kept the Baylor defense guessing with her variety of shots.
Cook said he was encouraged after Sun had a subpar performance against Texas State in the second round.
“Lexi needed to play big tonight, and she did," Cook said. "We're going to need to keep having that from her. It was a really good sign because I thought she struggled last match, and it's good to see her play like that because we were going to need it, big time.”
Sophomore Madi Kubik added eight kills, while Jazz Sweet recorded seven. As a team, the Huskers hit .222.
Setter Nicklin Hames finished with a double-double with 31 assists, 11 digs, three blocks and four kills on eight swings. But her biggest contribution might have been the leadership she provided without her fellow co-captain on the court.
“Lauren clearly has a big presence on our team and on the court,” Sun said. “Nicklin was able to step up and be the leader that she is and always has been, but I think it was just more vocal today.”
Baylor (20-7) notched two of its three ace serves early in the match as part of a 10-5 lead in the first set. The Huskers started slowly, as they committed four of their six hitting errors in the set during that stretch.
After a timeout, NU regrouped and eventually tied the set at 13 with four straight points. The Huskers took their first lead of the set at 17-16 and pulled away from there.
Serving separated the teams in the first set, as NU had four ace serves in the set, while Baylor racked up five service errors. For the match, the Bears finished with eight service errors, while Nebraska tallied eight aces, including a career-high five from Sun and two from senior Hayley Densberger.
“I think the difference in this match was Baylor serving,” Cook said. “They missed a lot early, and we were really pressuring them with our serve. I can only think of a couple of times where we weren't pressuring them.”
Nebraska’s serving also limited the options Baylor had on offense. The Bears were led by outside hitter Yossiana Pressley with 15 kills, while Lauren Harrison added six kills on 28 swings. The rest of the Baylor attack combined for 10 kills, seven errors and a .094 hitting percentage.
Pressley, the 2019 national player of the year, put up 26 kills in a five-set win against Pepperdine on Thursday, but the Huskers’ defense kept her in check for most of the match. At first, she tried back-row kills, but then NU took that away. Then she started to tip before the Huskers adjusted again to limit.
“I think the whole time we managed (Pressley) well,” Sweet said. “She's gonna get her kills, but we definitely were well prepared and were able to manage when she can go off. The whole night, we were able to keep that at a lower number than she had the night before.”
Sophomore libero Kenize Knuckles anchored the NU defense with 13 digs as the Bears hit .141 as a team.
In the second set, the Huskers scored five straight points for a 5-1 advantage and extended that lead to 10-4. The Bears wouldn’t get closer than five the rest of the way. Kayla Caffey recorded three kills and a block in the set to pace the Huskers. The junior middle blocker finished with seven kills at a .385 clip and three blocks.
Baylor found its footing early in the third set and took a lead at 13-9. Nebraska responded with five straight points to take the lead, which it never relinquished.
Cook said the win was satisfying and showed the Huskers' determination to rise to the challenge presented by a talented, physical Baylor team.
“I think what I'm most proud of is that they played together and they play with a lot of heart and play for each other probably the most we've done all year,” he said. “When you do that, you don't worry about anything else — just playing hard for each other and for the team. That's how teams play best.”
Nebraska now exits the convention center and will play in front of more than 4,000 fans in the CHI Health Center arena in the regional final.
After the cancellation of its last two regular-season matches, which would have hosted fans, the Huskers will get their first chance this season to play in front of the general public on Monday.
“It's been so long, and we were looking forward to getting to do that against Penn State to end our season and obviously didn't get the chance to so,” Sun said. “I think that we're used to having a lot of fans, and we're just excited to be back.”