Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Volleyball

2018 Nebraska Volleyball Position Reviews: Middle Blocker

December 23, 2018
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The 2018 volleyball season is officially in the books for Coach John Cook and the Huskers. Nebraska finished as the national runner-up with a 29-7 record, marking the fourth straight season the Huskers made a Final Four appearance.

Hail Varsity has broken down the outside hitter, defensive specialist and setter positions already this week, leaving just one more to go: middle blocker.

Sophomore Lauren Stivrins

As a redshirt freshman last season, the 6-foot-4 Stivrins was a nice complimentary piece as the second middle blocker next to Briana Holman. With Holman graduating, that bumped Stivrins up to the top of the depth chart, and the native of Scottsdale, Arizona, blossomed in her new role.

Stivrins got better and better as the season rolled on and she closed out the year hitting .421, second in the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin’s 6-foot-8 middle Dana Rettke and also second in program history behind Tracy Stalls’ .473 in 2007. 

Stivrins averaged 2.36 kills and 1.17 blocks per set this year. Coach John Cook also gave her the opportunity to serve this season and she notched 25 aces, though she was a bit too error-prone (41 misses) and that led to sophomore defensive specialist Hayley Densberger taking over for her at the service line at times down the stretch.

She finished her sophomore season with a career-high 19 kills in the championship match against Stanford and she recorded her first (and only, to this point) double-double with 13 kills and 10 blocks in Nebraska’s win over Penn State.

Stivrins was named an All-Big Ten First Team pick as well as a First-Team All-American.

In my Friday column, I wrote about how incredible Stivrins was in the postseason this year and how dominant she is on the slide, so be sure to check that out for more on Stivrins.

Freshman Callie Schwarzenbach

The 6-foot-5 freshman from Kearney, Missouri, is pretty quiet by nature, and her offensive play mirrored that trait for much of the time Schwarzenbach is on the court. She averaged 1.09 kills per set on .291 hitting, struggling at times to connect with setter and fellow freshman Nicklin Hames, particularly on tempo zero sets. The game seemed to be a little fast for her and Hames didn’t often look her way.

However, she was anything but quiet defensively as she earned the nickname Schwarzenblock for her prowess at the net. She used her length, athleticism and instincts to average 1.33 blocks per set, good for third in the conference. She joined Hames on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.

Schwarzenbach needs to make big strides as an attacker heading into next season, but another offseason to polish her technique and develop even further in the Husker Power program could make her an even more intimidating defensive presence at the net. 

Sophomore Anezka Szabo

When Chesney McClellan decided to transfer out of the program, it left Nebraska with just two middle blockers on the roster in Stivrins and Schwarzenbach. After testing a couple players out in practice, he decided to slide the South Dakota southpaw Szabo inside from her opposite hitter role to add depth. Standing at 6-foot-3 with her blocking ability as her biggest strength, the move made sense.

Fortunately for Nebraska, Stivirns and Schwarzenbach stayed healthy all year long and Cook never had to turn to his bench in the middle. However, Szabo did carve out a role for herself this season.

Nebraska struggled defensively at times when Nicklin Hames, the 5-foot-10 freshman setter was matched up across from a dynamic hitter, so Cook started to use a double substitution in those rotations from time to time, replacing Hames with Szabo and subbing Brooke Smith into the back row to set for that rotation. However, Szabo suffered a high ankle sprain in practice at the end of September and missed the rest of the season, though she did start to suit up for the last few matches.

Szabo finished the season with two kills and five errors on seven swings, one dig and three blocks (including one solo stuff).

Looking Ahead

Nebraska does have a little more depth on the way as Fallon Stutheit, a middle blocker/outside hitter from Johnson-Brock (Johnson, Nebraska), is part of the 2019 recruiting class as a walk-on.

She averaged 5.1 kills on .415 hitting as a senior and led Johnson-Brock to three Class D-1 state titles in her career. Stutheit is a little undersized to play in the middle at 6-foot-1, but Cook said she “can definitely hold her own at the net.”

Szabo’s position was changed to “middle blocker” on Nebraska’s website, which points to the position change being permanent, but we shall see next year if Szabo sticks in the middle or moves back outside behind Jazz Sweet. Either way, if Schwarzenbach can become more comfortable as an attacker next year to go with her excellent blocking, the Huskers should have one of the best middle blocker rotations in the country.

 
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