LINCOLN -- “I know this is an old cliché, but offenses fill the stadium; defenses win championships.” – Bill Moos.
Sure, when Nebraska’s athletic director made that statement last week he was talking about football, and the search for a new football coach.
It certainly applies, though, to the Nebraska volleyball team, the most recent program in the athletic department to win a championship. The Huskers won the Big Ten Conference title last week, finishing as co-champions with Penn State after ending the conference season with a 19-1 record.
Nebraska coach John Cook has always made it a priority to be good on defense, and for good reason. Most often the team with the best defense wins the conference championship.
The best gauge of the best defense is the opponent hitting percentage statistic. That measures how effective teams are at getting kills against your defense.
Nebraska led the Big Ten in defense this season, holding teams to an average of a .161 hitting percentage during conference matches. In each of the three seasons that Nebraska has won the Big Ten championship — 2011, 2016 and 2017 — the Huskers have led the league in defense. In five of the past seven seasons, the team with the best defense in the conference won the championship.
Nebraska is allowing opponents an average of only 10.93 kills per set, which also leads the league by more than one kill per set.
For all matches this season, Nebraska ranks 13th nationally in opponent hitting percentage at .153. Cook puts a major emphasis on defense each season.
“The one thing is if you can serve, block and defense, it’s always going to give you a chance, because every night your hitters aren’t going to be on, your setter isn’t going to be on, but if you can play defense, it’s a stress that other teams can’t really prepare for or deal with,” Cook said.
Nebraska middle blockers Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins each rank in the top 10 in the conference in blocking. Nebraska libero Kenzie Maloney ranks ninth in digs with 3.17 per set.
The Huskers aren’t as physically dominating on defense as they were last season — Nebraska ranks fifth in the Big Ten in blocking — but the blockers get touches on the opponent’s attacks that allow the Huskers’ back-row defenders to make a dig. And players such as Annika Albrecht, Sydney Townsend, Maloney and others will do a lot to make sure that ball doesn’t hit the floor.
Cook said what made the defense good this year was a mindset to be good at it.
“Defense is effort and mindset,” Cook said. “And I would say we have a really high volleyball IQ. They understand game plans, they know how to follow it, they know how to adjust, and that’s a strength of this team. And that’s a part of the culture we have because we’re always training it.”
The Huskers being good on defense starts with serving, Albrecht said, and then goes on from there.
“We get teams out of system so easily,” Albrecht said. “Whether we ace them or not, they’re usually out of system, so right out of the gate it helps our defense. And our block has been amazing this year. Whether they block it or they don’t, they’re in a good position, so then us defenders are able to get behind them. So maybe they get a good touch, and then we’ve been so good at change of direction, or our reaction has been really good. So I think serve, then the block and our floor defense has been really, really good.”
It is fun playing on a team that is really good at defense, Albrecht said.
“And I feel like our fans enjoy it, too, because they appreciate good volleyball, and it’s just good volleyball when you’re able to dig,” Albrecht said. “In men’s volleyball when it’s bump, set, spike, kill, it’s not fun at all. When you’re able to actually dig these balls, it frustrates the other team and it gives us a ton of momentum. And when your teammate digs a ball it makes a hitter want to get a kill for that dig. It’s fun.”
Early in the season, Nebraska held an explosive Purdue attack to a .134 hitting percentage in a four-set win. In the next match against Purdue, the Boilermakers were more effective, hitting .328, the highest mark against the Huskers this season.
But during the Huskers' current 13-match win streak, only two opponents hit above .210 against the Huskers.
Nebraska’s opponents are hitting slightly better this year than last year. Cook attributes that to the Justine Wong-Orantes factor, in reference to the Huskers’ All-American libero from last season who got digs on a lot of tough shots.
“That’s how good Justine is,” Cook said. “(Assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand) has watched video from last year, and every time he comes in my office and goes, ‘Oh, my, gosh, Justine is unreal.’”