Kelly Hunter sets career high as Huskers ace test, sweep Terrapins

LINCOLN — As Kelly Hunter got busy serving Maryland to pieces, the Terrapins were running short of ideas on how to handle Nebraska’s senior setter.

So Maryland coach Steve Aird got creative. After Hunter trickled a serve off the top of the net and to the floor for her fourth ace of the night, Aird went to the green card, challenging Hunter may have stepped on the end line for a foot fault.

No dice. The delay caused by the unsuccessful review broke Hunter’s rhythm, but merely tacked a few more minutes onto the running time of No. 6 Nebraska’s eighth consecutive victory. Hunter had four of NU’s season-best 10 aces in a 25-11, 25-15, 25-16 win that kept Nebraska (21-4, 14-1 Big Ten) tied for the conference lead with No. 1 Penn State.

“Our strategy every game is to serve really tough,” Hunter said. “Coach (John) Cook always gives us a good zone where he thinks the best matchup is. We just go back there, we try and take a deep breath and stick it with your hand contact, and hope the ball moves. It was moving tonight.”

Nebraska’s serving kept Maryland’s offense from getting the ball to a young, talented group of pin hitters with any regularity. The Terrapins, who upset ranked foes in Southern Cal and Purdue this season, hit .081 and dropped their third straight match.

Libero Kenzie Maloney added three aces, while Mikaela Foecke, Sydney Townsend and Hunter Atherton each had one as the Huskers served long, short and everywhere in between to gum up the Terrapins’ offense.

“We’re a team where we’ve got to win with serve, block and defense,” Cook said. “That’s just got to be part of our DNA for this team and how we’re successful. It all starts with serving.”

Hunter’s hand also guided a balanced attack that put up a .406 hitting percentage, NU’s second-highest mark of the season and its best in Big Ten play. Four Huskers had at least seven kills, led by nine from middle blocker Lauren Stivrins. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman put up her highest kill total in five matches and hit .636.

“We have to be able to go to her whether it’s a perfect pass or an off pass,” Cook said of Stivrins. “Her and Kelly are just getting into a really nice rhythm where Kelly is comfortable setting her under stress a little bit, and Lauren is going to do something with it.”

Stivrins scored most of her kills Wednesday on the slide play, running behind Hunter and out to the right pin. It’s a play Nebraska has labored to run with consistency the past several seasons, but Stivrins said practice reps are starting to make the play pay off.

Her final kill came on a slide in transition where she bounced a ball off the top of a blocker’s head and out of play.

“That’s something we’ve been working on a lot, this week especially,” Stivrins said, “because earlier in the season our slide set was a little slower, so we’ve changed the pace of it. We worked on that a lot in practice so we finally got comfortable with it.”

The Huskers looked at ease most of the night, with the exception of the start of the second set. Freshman Samantha Drechsel, who led Maryland (16-11, 5-10) with nine kills, scored on back-to-back rallies to give the Terrapins a 10-6 lead.

But after Annika Albrecht scored from the back row, Cook brought freshman Hayley Densberger off the bench to serve in place of Atherton, who committed two early service errors. Densberger, from Malcolm, hadn’t played for the better part of two matches, but dealt Maryland passers chaos while serving an 8-0 run that put Nebraska in control.

“That just shows you how strong mentally our bench players are,” Stivrins said. “They’re ready to go in at any time.

“Our team has so much confidence in (Densberger) going back there. When she stepped on the court, I was like, ‘Get it, girl.’ ”

Cook said this time of year, his goal is to keep the Huskers focused, efficient and rested. Getting off the court in three sets saves legs and arms, and the team will have a day off Thursday before preparing to end a three-match homestand with Rutgers at 2 p.m. Sunday, when NU will go for a 27th straight win at home.

Then, Nebraska goes on the road for three straight, including a rematch at Maryland on Nov. 18, leaving just one regular-season home match after that for NU’s seniors.

It’s slipping by quickly, Hunter said. The Papillion-La Vista South graduate set Nebraska to an NCAA title and a Big Ten championship her first two years as starter, but said her senior year seems to be passing by fastest of all.

There’s no way to slow the time, and every bit on the court must be savored. So what’s a few more seconds in between serves?

“I was thinking about my senior speech today and I have no clue what I’m going to say,” Hunter said. “I told my sister if she wrote it for me, I’d give her 50 bucks. It’s hard just trying to live in the moment, but the days are getting shorter, so we’ve just got to take advantage of every one.”

Maryland (16-11, 5-10)…………11 15 16

At Nebraska (21-4, 14-1)……….25 25 25

UM (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Drechsel 9-0-0, Milana 4-0-1, Gaskin 4-0-1, Gardner 3-0-3, Pritchard 3-1-3, Murray 2-0-1

NU: Stivrins 9-0-3, Foecke 8-1-0, Albrecht 8-0-0, Holman 7-0-1, Sweet 5-0-2, Hunter 1-4-2, Maloney 0-3-0, Townsend 0-1-0, Atherton 0-1-0

Set Assists: UM 20 (Snyder 10, Bentz 8, Higginbothem 1, Burgio 1), N 36 (Hunter 34, Foecke 1, Townsend 1). Attendance: 8,031

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