LINCOLN — Kelsey Robinson chose to finish her college career at Nebraska in part because she wanted to lead a team. Thursday night, Robinson put the young Huskers on her back to help NU survive a challenge at the Ameritas Players Challenge.
No. 12 Nebraska toughed out an 18-25, 25-21, 25-21, 25-18 win over St. Mary's before 7,882 at Devaney Center, thanks to Robinson and the best night of freshman Amber Rolfzen's young career.
Robinson, a senior transfer from Tennessee, led all players with 19 kills on a match-high 46 swings. She added a match-best 17 digs for her third double-double of the season, while Rolfzen put down a career-high 16 kills.
But it wasn't clear in the opening game if Nebraska's pin hitters would have a big night. St. Mary's ran away with the opener, holding the Huskers (5-1) to a .088 attack percentage and keeping Nebraska out of rhythm with tough serving and an unorthodox offense that NU struggled to slow despite extensive study in practice.
“They run kind of a weirder system than we're used to seeing,” Robinson said. “They set their outsides very tight and they hit line so our outsides really had to focus on blocking line and not really worry so much about the middle. That's what kind of got us off-balance in the first game.”
Nebraska adjusted in Game 2 with its outside hitters focusing on blocking down the line and the middles slowing down St. Mary's middle blocker Madelyn Hutson, who had six of her seven kills in the first two games.
After six kills in Game 1, Robinson added five more in Game 2, including one on game point to tie the match 1-1.
“The biggest thing I've been focusing on in practice is taking smart shots and being consistent,” Robinson said. “That's kind of what Coach has been preaching to me, just being consistent and being a rock for our team. I think the second, third and fourth game is when I thought 'this is the time to be consistent, and take smart swings, and take the swings when I have it, and our team will follow.' ”
And just as Robinson sparked the Huskers over the first half of the match, Rolfzen added the jolts in Games 3 and 4. The former Papillion-La Vista South star had 10 kills and no errors on 18 swings over the final two games. She also added four blocks, as part Nebraska's season-high 11 stuffs in the match.
“Amber lit them up once we got her going, so that was huge,” Cook said. “(Husker setter) Mary (Pollmiller) did a great job of getting her the ball in some tough situations. I know Amber can take over matches like that. I don't know if she knows it yet, but it was good for her to do that and see that.”
St. Mary's (3-2) was led by 16 kills and 14 digs from outside hitter Jordan Shaw, the daughter of long-time Stanford volleyball coach Don Shaw.
Nebraska's outside hitters controlled the match, which they may have to do more often while the Huskers continue to struggle getting consistent production from the middle hitters. Starting middle blockers Cecilia Hall and Meghan Haggerty combined for four kills and four errors on 21 swings against the Gaels. Haggerty was replaced after Game 2 by sophomore Alicia Ostrander, who had five kills on as many swings.
Cook said he hadn't ruled out playing true freshman middle blocker Melanie Keil, who has appeared in one match briefly this season.
“We've just got to keep forcing the middle until we figure out how to do it,” Cook said. “I'll tell you right now, we could set our pin hitters all night and they would love it, and we would probably be pretty good. But to beat great teams, we're going to have to get kills out of the middle.”
St. Mary's (3-2) ................................ 25 21 21 18
At Nebraska (5-1) ............................ 18 25 25 25
SMC (kills-aces-blocks): Shaw 16-1-2, Loos 10-0-3, Hutson 7-0-5, Graven 7-1-1, Tinsley 4-0-1, Mendivil 3-2-2, Dodd 1-0-1
NU: Robinson 19-0-1, A. Rolfzen 16-0-4, K. Rolfzen 9-0-3, Pollmiller 6-0-2, Ostrander 5-0-2, Hall 3-0-5, Haggerty 1-0-0, Lyles 0-1-0, Wong-Orantes 0-1-0
Set assists: SMC, 47 (Dodd 43). NU, 56 (Pollmiller 46).
Total digs: SMC, 60 (Graven 15, Shaw 14, Reams 12). NU, 67 (Robinson 17, Wong-Orantes 16, A. Rolfzen 11, K. Rolfzen 11)