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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

2021 Nebraska Volleyball Position Reviews: Defensive Specialist

January 27, 2022

The 2021 season was one to remember for John Cook’s Huskers, and before we move on to beach and the offseason, we’re taking one last look back, position by position.

We’ve already broken down the setters. Up next is the defensive specialists. For a more in-depth, extensive look at the “Legion of Boom,” go here.

Junior Kenzie Knuckles

Knuckles spent her first two seasons in Lincoln as the team’s libero. Her teammates voted her captain before the season. Yet when the Huskers took the court for the opening weekend, she wasn’t out there in the libero jersey.

Kenzie Knuckles (2) dives for a pancake save in the the third set against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Photo John S. Peterson.

With Lexi Rodriguez’s arrival, Cook decided to change Knuckles’ position, from left back (where the libero plays at Nebraska) to center back. Knuckles said the demotion, for lack of a better word, was difficult at first but ended up being a great move for her.

While she didn’t see the court as much as she had the previous two seasons, she still settled into a sizable role as Cook went all in on making Nebraska’s defense as strong as possible. She played in all but two sets this season, averaging 2.06 digs per set. She was second on the team with 35 aces (0.29 per set) and did so with just 31 errors. Knuckles had seven matches with double-digit digs including a season-high of 14 against Indiana (in just three sets) and finished with three aces in five matches.

Knuckles’ position change also provided her an opportunity to take some swings out of the back row, and while she only hit .171, she did notch 52 kills including a handful in big moments throughout the season. She had a season-high five kills on six swings against Maryland. She also recorded one memorable block against Minnesota when Cook ran out of substitutions and Knuckles got stuck in the front row.

The selflessness Knuckles displayed in accepting and embracing her new role without harboring any hard feelings said a lot about how close this team was, and she still played a big part in the Huskers going as far as they did.

Sophomore Keonilei Akana

Nebraska Volleyball Player Keonilei Akana Serves Against Maryland

Keonilei Akana (6) serves the ball against the Maryland Terrapins. Photo by John Peterson.

Akana essentially played the same role she did as a freshman at right back and made significant strides. She saw plenty of playing time in the back row and averaged 2.54 digs per set as part of the best defensive team in the Big Ten. She also managed to record one kill (against Wisconsin) and one block assist (against Campbell in the NCAA Tournament).

However, Akana was perhaps best known for her serving prowess. Dubbed K-Thump by assistant coach Jaylen Reyes, Akana honed her serve into a weapon, leading the Huskers with 42 aces and just 37 errors. In addition to the aces, she seemingly was good for at least one extended serving run every match.

Akana finished with double-digit digs in 19 or Nebraska’s 34 matches including a career-high 24 in the National Championship match. She served seven aces against Texas in the NCAA Tournament, five against Wisconsin and four against Penn State, and she did it with just five errors in those three matches.

Freshman Lexi Rodriguez

Had Cook stuck with the veteran in Knuckles at libero and let Rodriguez fill a lesser role or perhaps even redshirt as a freshman, Nebraska probably still would have had a great season. Knuckles filled that spot admirably in her first two seasons. However, he thought he had something special in Rodriguez, and he was right.

Lexi Rodriguez (8) digs the ball against Michigan. Photo by John S. Peterson.

She started from day one and racked up a slew of awards including AVCA National Freshman of the Year, AVCA First Team All-America, AVCA North Region Freshman of the Year, ACVA North All-Region, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All-Big Ten, Big Ten All-Freshman Team and numerous weekly Big Ten awards.

Rodriguez was the backbone of one of the best defensive teams in the country, averaging 4.33 digs and 1.10 assists per set. She’s the only Huskers to play in every single set this season and she reached double figures in digs in 30 of her 34 matches. She topped 20 eight times including a season-high 28 in a four-set win against Purdue. Cook spoke highly about Rodriguez’s ball control and her touch as a setter, which made her a perfect match for a strong defensive setter in Nicklin Hames who often made first contact. She also recorded a kill against Utah.

Perhaps the one area in her game with plenty of room for improvement is her serving as she notched just 16 aces (three of which were against Indiana) and 36 errors. 

Lauren Stivrins saw enough midway through the season to call the freshman one of the best defenders to ever come through the program, and after what we saw this season, it would be hard to disagree.

Looking Ahead

The best part about how strong Nebraska’s back row was this season is that all three of them are set to return next season. Nicklin Hames, who was an honorary Legion of Boom member with her defensive prowess, is returning as well and could play more as a defensive specialist as she’s passing off the starting setter role to Kennedi Orr. Where she fits into that picture I have no idea, but Cook is certainly going to have some talented options on his hands.

Norris setter Maisie Boesiger is the only newcomer to the group as the walk-on commit will transition into a defensive specialist role at Nebraska. She racked up 3,460 assists, 995 digs and 226 aces in 392 sets throughout her prolific career at Norris, breaking the schools records for career assists and aces. PrepVolleyball.com named her a First-Team All-American earlier this month.

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