It’s hard to say the reigning national champions lost a step.
While Nebraska has since dropped to No. 3 and replaced half of its starters, its current nine-game winning streak proves that the Cornhuskers have actually taken one step forward.
Similarly, the No. 18 Michigan volleyball team found itself in the middle of a retool, just to a lesser degree of talent. But rather than taking small steps, the Wolverines sprinted to an 11-game win streak to start the season — while only dropping a single set in 34.
As the two teams square off on Friday night, despite both featuring youth in their core rotations, Nebraska (9-1 overall) holds the edge in experience. Weathered down from a tough non-conference schedule, the Cornhuskers faced three ranked opponents, all of whom are ranked higher than Michigan.
On the other hand, the Wolverines saw a relatively easy non-conference schedule with few challenges to push them to extra sets. The extra experience might prove to be the difference maker in a matchup that could define the direction of Michigan’s conference play.
Player to watch for Michigan: Paige Jones
No longer is outside hitter Paige Jones the unscouted weapon teams put aside for extra pressure on senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker. The freshman has proven that, despite just getting acquainted to the Division I level, she is every bit a threat as any other player on the court, if not more.
Jones broke out against Colorado State on Sep. 8th, when she posted seven service aces and 18 kills on a .500 attack percentage. It was a much needed statement from Jones, who had put up consistent numbers all season long but needed a career-night to hammer down the point: she is a threat.
On the season, Jones is second on the team for both kills — with 112 — and attack percentage at .288. One of her biggest impacts, however, is one that’s not listed on the stat sheet. Her presence provides an ever-present threat that prevents the opposition from focusing the other pillars in Michigan’s balanced offense.
The Wolverines’ best chance of breaking through their toughest opponent yet will be a strong performance from Jones.
Position to watch for Michigan: Libero
Senior libero Jenna Lerg has been one of the best in the nation at her role. She averages 5.53 digs per set, which ranks 16th nationally, a number that is deflated by having Skjodt and junior setter Mackenzi Welsh average 2.65 and 2.59 digs per set, respectively.
Lerg has provided a consistent presence in the backline, keeping many out-of-play rallies going. Against Nebraska’s suffocating defense, all of Lerg’s skill set will be necessary to keep plays alive, as the Cornhuskers rank first in the NCAA in opponent hitting percentage at .109.
Player to watch for Nebraska: Mikaela Foecke
It’s no shock to anyone who watches Nebraska volleyball who the star is on the team. The senior outside hitter was on an All-American team all three years of her college career and looks to make it a fourth year. Her pace of play indicates that she will be.
Against then-No.14 Creighton, Foecke had a game-high 25 kills and 13 digs while adding four service aces. Her stable performances have helped elevate the team to its current top-tier play after having to replace half of the starting lineup including three long-time starters. She averages 3.57 kills per set and has a .323 attack percentages, which ranks among the top of the Big Ten.
Position to watch for Nebraska: Outside hitter
The Cornhuskers are stacked at the outside hitter position. Many of their rotation players in the role have placed double-digit kills, and they’re highlighted by Foecke. Each one of the players in the position has made the most of her opportunity and proven to be a scoring threat despite limited minutes.
Jazz Sweet has been every bit consistent as Foecke. She has five double-digit kill games and shot efficiently even in the single-digit kill nights. Freshman Capri Davis had a career night against Creighton — tallying 18 kills. Despite not being able to do that every night, Michigan should be aware of her abilities in the instance she steps up. Lexi Sun has made the most of her limited playing time. Through two games, she has averaged 11 kills per game, proving she is viable in the rotation if needed.
The offense and defense of Nebraska are forces to reckon with. The well-roundedness has been the factor that pushes this team to greatness, and to counter, Michigan will have to find career nights from its balanced offense and consistency from Lerg in order to stand a chance.