LINCOLN — Sweeping two matches from then-No. 11 UCLA was the feel-good weekend the Nebraska volleyball team needed, but no one left the court with a bigger smile than Annika Albrecht.
The senior outside hitter had her finest offensive stretch as a Husker with 20 kills and a .429 attack percentage in No. 10 Nebraska’s two wins over the Bruins, while committing only two hitting errors in 42 attempts.
Prior to last weekend, errors hindered Albrecht’s transition to being a front-row attacker after three seasons in which she primarily played as a defensive specialist. After hitting .143 or lower in each of Nebraska’s first five matches this season, she sat down with assistant Tyler Hildebrand for some extra film study last week.
Hildebrand is a proponent of teaching via video, showing players their own tendencies and modeling proven techniques from the world’s best players. For the 6-foot Albrecht, somewhat undersized for an outside hitter, the coach rolled tape on Michal Kubiak, an outside hitter for the Polish men’s national team who played with Hildebrand in a professional season in Israel.
“It’s not always to try to mimic them or replicate everything they’re doing,” Hildebrand said, “but just to show some options of someone else in their position.”
Hildebrand said Kubiak also was considered undersized for a men’s outside hitter, but exhibited enough offensive creativity to become captain of the Polish team that won the 2014 world championship.
Albrecht said the film study was helpful, but even so, it didn’t pay off right away as she tried to fine-tune the new shots in workouts.
“Honestly, it wasn’t even working in practice last week,” Albrecht said. “But (the coaches) know me really well and they knew I was working on that stuff.”
It would be hard to convince UCLA she was a work in progress. Albrecht had chances to show off her powerful right arm, but when facing a double block, she still found ways to score on roll shots or tips over the block, or by “tooling” shots off blockers’ hands out of bounds.
“Anni, I think, was pressing really hard trying to prove the first couple weekends,” coach John Cook said. “I just saw her relax this weekend and be Anni. She had a lot of success. I think that’s really good for her to now know what she needs to do. She doesn’t need to be Superwoman.”
Albrecht regularly succeeded last weekend in one of an outside hitter’s toughest tests, scoring on “out of system” plays when a team is scrambling after the first touch doesn’t put it in ideal scoring position. Four of Albrecht’s eight kills in Saturday’s win came out of system, including the match’s final point.
With setter Kelly Hunter forced to send a cross-court set from deep in right back, Albrecht sent a roll shot over the net from the left pin. It grazed the top of the UCLA block and fell to the floor to clinch the win.
“She hit some really cool shots, moved it around a little bit,” Hildebrand said. “I just want Anni to be confident and want her to be free and take some rips and be a six-rotation player. I know she’s wanted to do that for a long time.”
Hunter earns Big Ten honor
Hunter didn’t waste any time collecting Big Ten hardware in her first weekend of full-time action.
The senior from Papillion-La Vista South, who missed the first two matches and split time in a 6-2 system two weekends ago, was named the conference setter of the week Monday after averaging 12.5 assists and 2.67 digs per set in the two UCLA matches.
It was the seventh conference honor of Hunter’s career.
“I feel like we have hot hitters in every position,” she said after Saturday’s win, “and I could set the ball wherever I want at any time, and it will be a kill.”
Freshmen gaining respect
With four seniors graduating after last season, Nebraska’s freshmen have been quick to seize the opportunity for playing time. Four of NU’s five true freshmen have played in 2017, with only middle blocker Chesney McClellan still available to redshirt during her first year.
Hunter said the young players turned heads during summer conditioning with their work ethic.
“If someone’s working hard, you can’t really ever get mad at them,” she said. “I think a lot of times your play and the energy you bring — you’re leading by example — that brings the energy with the cheering and things like that.
“Just the fact that they work so hard made us respect them right out of the gate.”
They’ve backed it up with production. Freshman opposite hitter Jazz Sweet is second on the team with 66 kills and has a team-best .352 hitting percentage. Fellow opposite hitter Anezka Szabo, who has played in five of seven matches, is already one of the team’s better blockers, and walk-on defensive specialist Hayley Densberger has established herself as one of NU’s top servers.
Cook credited the upperclassmen for recognizing that the team would need freshmen to contribute right away and creating an environment in the offseason to quickly bring them into the fold.
“The biggest thing for freshmen is if they don’t feel comfortable with the kids that they’re playing with on the court, they’re going to (act like) freshmen,” Cook said. “If you break down that barrier over the summer through building relationships, then that allows them to (feel), ‘OK, I can go play now. These guys want me out here, they like me, I belong here.’ ”
Tough start to Big Ten play
The difficulty of Nebraska’s first two weekends of Big Ten play was put into focus when three conference opponents landed in the top five of the coaches poll.
No. 1 Minnesota (8-0) retained the top spot after knocking off No. 6 Texas 3-1 Friday, with freshman opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy racking up 22 kills.
No. 2 Penn State (7-0) has already beaten defending national champion Stanford twice, most recently a 3-2 win over the Cardinal last weekend.
Meanwhile, No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0) hasn’t missed a beat after graduating All-America setter Lauren Carlini. Freshman Sydney Hilley stepped in and has the Badgers hitting .352, which ranks second in the country.
NU opens Big Ten play at Penn State on Sept. 22 and hosts Minnesota and Wisconsin on the final weekend of the month.
Said Cook of the difficult opening schedule: “Our players have been talking about it all year, so they know what’s coming.”