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Three takes from Nebraska volleyball breezing past Michigan to a sweep

"It was fun," said middle blocker Lauren Stivrins of No. 12 Nebraska's performance to cruise past Michigan to a 3-0 victory (25-14, 25-15, 25-13).

After having back surgery and months of rehab, Stirvins played in her first game of the season. Nebraska played its best game of the season against the Wolverines with Stirvins back in the middle.

Here are my three takes on Nebraska's easy sweep of Michigan:

Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins
Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins (Abby Barmore)

Stivrins is back and she has changed everything

Each time Stivrins's name was announced before a match this season, Devaney gave her the loudest applause of her teammates as she stood in street clothes. But nothing could compare to the standing ovation she received when her name was called as a starter against Michigan.

The crowd roared. Stivrins said she blacked out.

"It was really amazing. I had my family there, and my friends, all the fans and my team by my side," she said. "I've worked quite hard to get back to where I am right now."

Sitting beside her at the press conference table, setter Nicklin Hames nodded her head vigorously. Hames saw how hard Stivrins worked.

Head coach John Cook said Stivrins put in six to seven hours of rehab a day since August to get on the court. Stivrins said she lost "every bit of muscle" she had after her surgery and had to gain it all back.

Cook didn't start Stivrins in the front row of the first set because he knew her adrenaline was "threw the roof" after her "Jordan (Larson)-like" ovation.

"She might have ripped down the net or sent the first ball to the upper deck," he said.

When she rotated in, Stivrins' first kill of the season was a slide that she buried. The crowd loved that too.

"The Stivrins slide, we've missed it," Hames said.

The six-year middle blocker had 11 kills, no errors and a match-high .733 hitting percentage. She added three block assists.

"Well, that's great," Stivrins said after Hames read her stats aloud.

Stivrins said whether she starts against Michigan State on Sunday will depend on how her body feels. Cook said she pushed herself hard in practice on Wednesday and was ready for Thursday's practice. He said she played longer and harder in practice than in the Michigan match.

Best all-around game

Nebraska had four hitting errors in the entire match. They almost had a perfect set in set three until Kenzie Knuckles hit a ball out for NU's first error on point 21.

The team hit .463, their best hitting percentage since playing Rutgers in 2019.

"We've struggled a little bit this year with errors," Hames said. "I thought tonight we managed really well and I thought our outsides did an amazing job in our system, taking good rips and getting them out-of-system."

Outside hitter Madi Kubik had 11 kills, one error and hit .455. Ally Batenhorst had eight kills with no errors for the first time in her career. She also hit a career-high .348. On the right side, Lindsay Krause had seven kills, one error and hit .375.

In the middle, along with Stivrins' errorless performance, Kayla Caffey hit .583 on eight kills with one error. Cook said Caffey can now play her natural position as the second middle instead of playing Stivrins' spot as the first.

Hames had one of her best matches so far this season with 39 assists. She had a set dump in the third set, then jugged back to the service line and delivered four consecutive aces.

"It was cool," she said with a smile.

Cook said, with a smile, that he didn't feel too bad for Michigan because Nebraska's team can't pass Hames's serve either.

The Huskers, who have struggled with giving up scoring runs, allowed only one against Michigan with a 6-1 run in the second set. Outside of that run, Nebraska was playing sound, smart volleyball on almost every point.

"This was the best we've played overall the entire season," Hames said. "This is what we see every day in practice."

A step closer

Nebraska dominated Michigan just like Stivrins said she knew they would.

"Our team has been kicking butt in practice this whole week so it was no surprise to me that we came out and played the way that we did," she said.

Cook said he told his team to expect to play well because of their good week of preparation.

The next step for the Huskers is to string together another game like the Michigan performance and make it a habit.

"We're trying to go from good to great," Cook said. "We took a step tonight. Now the challenge will be, 'can we keep doing it?' This team has got to show some maturity and understand that this is the Big Ten and every night is gonna be a battle."

Michigan State (8-4, 1-2) is next on Nebraska's schedule for Sunday. It will be important for the Huskers to respond well after a big victory on Friday and keep their foot on the pedal heading into more difficult Big Ten opponents.

With Stivrins back on the court, that mission might become a little easier. However, volleyball is a team sport.

"This night, I couldn't have asked for anything more," Stivrins said. "I love this team, it is so fun to play with them. I think everyone is in a really great spot right now and so I'm excited to see where we can take this thing."