With Maryland volleyball down by nearly ten points in the fourth set of action in Nebraska, middle blocker Jada Gardner looked to turn the tides with an offspeed kill attempt.
As Gardner’s tip floated over the net, it was corralled by two Cornhusker defenders before being poked into the air for middle blocker Lauren Stivrins to spike over the net, thwarting the Terps’ comeback efforts.
Fueled by a stat-sheet filling performance from Stivrins, No. 4 Nebraska topped Maryland in a four-set slugfest, taking the match 3-1 (25-19, 25-27, 25-19, 25-14).
“Too many long runs that I thought kind of got us out of hand,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “Against an elite team it’s tough to claw your way back.”
Former No. 1 national recruit Lexi Sun made her presence felt early, deftly placing two quick kills between the Maryland defense to gain an early edge over the Terps.
Nebraska’s advantage quickly ballooned into a 15-8 lead in the first set, thanks in no small part to three Cornhusker aces. Nebraska also showed its dominance at the net, racking up seven spikes from its opening 15 points.
The Terps were aided by a solid first frame by Jada Gardner, who posted a team-high five kills in the first to help chip into a sizable Cornhusker lead. However, a rocketing putaway attempt shot through the outstretched arms of two Terps defenders gave the Cornhuskers the first set, 25-19.
While the first set of action belonged overwhelmingly to Nebraska from the get-go, Maryland began finding its rhythm early in the second frame.
With the Terps down 7-6 in the second set, Sun attempted yet another one of her high velocity kills from the left wing. The ball flew towards the ground, but was somehow deflected into the air by a kneeling Sam Burgio. Moments later, Gardner put the point away with a kill of her own, knotting the set at seven.
After a Kayla Caffey kill attempt was rejected by Rainelle Jones and Erika Pritchard at the net, Nebraska head coach John Cook called a timeout with his team trailing 20-18 to a Terps team firmly in rhythm.
Cook’s timeout paid off, as Nebraska rattled off the next four points to retake the lead. With the crucial second set in limbo, an intense punching battle ensued. Nebraska garnered three set points in part thanks to service errors from Pritchard and Burgio.
But Maryland wouldn’t be denied in the second set.
After Rebekah Rath put a shot away to tie the competitive second set at 25, an attack error by Sun gave Adam Hughes’ side its first set point of the match.
And after another Sun kill attempt floated left, the Terps had taken a set against the Huskers for the first time since 2015.
“We were really just playing freely and just playing Maryland volleyball,” Gardner said. “Even if we’re down, we know we can get [ourselves] back into it… it’s always next ball, new point, new opportunity.”
While Maryland hung tough in the second frame, Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins had other plans for the rest of the evening.
Stivrins, the 6 foot 4 inch middle blocker, laid the hammer down on the Terps in efficient fashion throughout the contest, accounting for 18 kills on 20 attempts — an impressive .900 hitting percentage to lead the Huskers on the evening.
The Terps fell into a rut midway through the third, giving up a 6-0 run by the Stivrins-led Cornhuskers.
Service errors and Nebraska aces were Maryland’s Achilles’ heel throughout the contest, as the Terps accounted for 10 service errors and gave up six aces through just the first three sets.
Capitalizing off Maryland’s costly mistakes, Nebraska squeezed the life out of the Terps in the third, winning the set convincingly, 25-19.
So, Maryland was on the brink, trailing the Cornhuskers 2-1. And with her team’s back against the wall, team captain Erika Pritchard responded in the fourth set.
Pritchard came out of the gates slow, notching just one kill in the first set. By the fourth, though, Pritchard had found her groove. The All-American pitched in four kills in the fourth frame alone, fueling the Terps comeback efforts.
“I definitely feel like I got in my groove a little bit later on,” Pritchard said, “I didn’t really get too many opportunities early on, but I think that… I trusted my training.”
Pritchard’s efforts paid off for the Terps, who kept it close with the Cornhuskers early in the fourth set. However, Stivrins would not be denied.
She notched her 17th and 18th spikes toward the end of the period, pushing Nebraska to match point. One Madi Kubik kill later, and it was the Cornhuskers drifting off the court in delight, claiming a hard-fought, but comfortable win over a resilient Maryland bunch.