Volleyball: Wildcats win set against No. 12 Nebraska, but drop Big Ten opener at home


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior outside hitter Hanna Lesiak reaches for a hit. Lesiak led the Cats with 14 kills and helped NU win its first set against Nebraska since 2013.

John Riker, Sports Editor

Trailing 11-9 in the first set of their Big Ten opener against No. 12 Nebraska, Northwestern would not back down to the visiting favorites.

Midway through the point, a Nebraska kill attempt ricocheted off senior libero Megan Miller and continued over the back boundary of the Wildcat side. Redshirt junior outside hitter Hanna Lesiak chased down the ball and slid in front of the Cats’ bench to keep the play alive, but her lob angled toward the other sideline and made for another seemingly impossible hit to corral.

Impossible, until it wasn’t. Freshman libero Ellee Stinson sprinted from one back corner to the other, dove over Miller to avoid a collision and somehow sent the ball back over the net. Sophomore setter Alexa Rousseau blocked the Cornhuskers’ next volley, and the ensuing Nebraska error sealed an NU point.

The sequence elicited a thunderous roar from the 1,233 spectators in attendance — the Cats’ largest crowd at a Big Ten opener since 2016 — with the loudest cheers coming from a packed student section.

“We’ve been trying to kind of fight for those fans, too,” Lesiak said. “We’ve been passing out flyers and reaching out to people and telling everyone that we want you at our games. This is a team effort.”

But the play didn’t turn out to be pivotal. Nebraska (7-3, 1-0 Big Ten) eventually took the first set 25-21 and won three of the match’s four sets to knock off NU (5-7, 0-1). But from the early breakout performers’ hustle to the fans’ boisterous support in the bleachers, the Cats’ highlight reel, against-all-odds sequence underscored an element that sets this NU team apart from last season’s 4-6 campaign — the energy.

The Cornhuskers controlled the match throughout the night but the Cats stayed competitive, with the first two sets ending in identical 25-21 scores.

“Preparing to face a team like this, our first game against a Big Ten team, it’s all about being aggressive against them,” Lesiak said. “We responded pretty well, we could have been better with our defensive side.”

NU used a 6-2 run midway through to build a 19-16 advantage in the third set, then withstood a Nebraska surge that almost saw the Cornhuskers tie the score at 24.

The set’s 25-23 score marked the first time the Cats had taken a set from Nebraska — a program has won three national titles under coach John Cook — since 2013.

“Set three, the big point was taking care of some of the easier things, communication stuff and things that we control, but we were aggressive with our pin attack,” coach Shane Davis said. “And (Lesiak), specifically toward the end of set three, taking a lot of big swings — that was a huge key for us.”

Lesiak finished the night with team highs of 14 kills and 39 total attacks, another step in a breakout redshirt junior season.

After injuries sidelined her for the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons, Lesiak has blossomed into one of the Cats’ leading offensive contributors and a leader in the huddle.

“(Lesiak’s) a pretty fiery kid, a pretty tough kid,” Davis said. “She’s played almost every point for us this year. She passes the ball, she takes a lot of swings, and a lot of tough swings.”

The Cats built on its third-set success, jumping out to a 6-2 lead to open the fourth. Nebraska responded by taking 10 of the next 12 points and catapulted into the lead. NU never recovered from what Davis called “cruise control” and lost 25-16 in the most lopsided set of the match.

By the match’s end, Nebraska proved its merits as one of the top teams in the country. Meanwhile, the Cats’ lapses in communication and execution underscored their room for growth. Junior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, one of NU’s top players since her breakout freshman year, had a game-high seven errors, and the Cornhuskers led in each of the major statistical categories.

Still, the Cats left the court with reason to be excited about their performance and the weeks to come. In her fourth season in Evanston, Lesiak said this year’s team is the most energetic group yet.

“We have some more fiery players that want it super bad,” Lesiak said. “That is great for the progression of the program.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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