The final result didn’t go Nebraska’s way, but the highlight of the Huskers’ 3-2 loss at Minnesota on Saturday undoubtedly came late in the second set.
With the set going into extra points, Nebraska ran out of subs, meaning 5-foot-8 defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles had to rotate to the front row and play at the left pin. The Huskers earned set point at 29-28 and Minnesota set the ball to the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in prolific outside hitter Stephanie Samedy. With Lauren Stivrins beside her, Knuckles rose up and blocked Samedy for set point, tying the match at one set apiece.
“I would call that willing a point,” Coach John Cook said. “She just found a way. She’s a great athlete. She touches 10 feet. We don’t train her in blocking. Sometimes she’ll mess around with it and we’ll let her go front row sometimes, but it’s not like we train her in blocking though. But she’s an athlete. And sometimes hitters see the small block and try to hit over them. Size-wise, she’s deceiving because she jumps and gets up pretty high and she got pretty long arms.
Cook said Knuckles’ technique on the block was perfect.
“We’ll show that to our other left side blockers,” Cook said.
While Knuckles moonlighted as a pin-hitter on Saturday, Madi Kubik continues to lead the Huskers in kills game in and game out. She’s at least tied for the team lead in kills in every match and is among the conference leaders since Big Ten play began. Teams have taken notice and are beginning to target her more and more with their serves to put more on Kubik’s plate and make it more difficult for her to attack.
“That’s what Jordan Larson did,” Cook said. “That’s what Mikaela Foecke did. That’s what Tara Mueller did. You play that position, you’ve got to pass. That’s what Anni Albrecht did in ’17. It’s just part of the territory, so she’s got to hold up when teams get her the ball. But the good thing is we know where the ball’s being served and she knows it’s coming to her. They’re aiming to her, so it does make it a little more simple.”
Cook said Kubik’s primary focus has to be on passing, followed by serving, then defense and finally hitting and blocking. Thats the role of a six-rotation hitter.
While Kubik has stepped her game up significantly in conference play, Cook is still searching for an answer at the other left side hitter spot. Freshman Ally Batenhorst has started every Big Ten match, but senior Lexi Sun has replaced her multiple times including after the first set against Minnesota on Saturday. With the attention paid to Kubik, it’s important for the second outside hitter to take advantage of her opportunities.
“Somebody that wants to step up, and who’s going to take over,” Cook said. “We’re hitting on five cylinders; we need to hit on six … They go week-by-week and both both of them know. We might give Whitney [Lauenstein] a shot. They all know that they have a chance to play.”
On the opposite pin, freshman Lindsay Krause is second on the team in kills at 2.98 kills per set while hitting an impressive .288. However, that percentage took a big hit last week as she hit .143 and .085, and Cook is holding his talented freshman to a high standard.
“You’re only as good as your last match,” Cook said. “She had a chance to make some big kills and didn’t. So that means nothing. We just look at the last match, how we’re going to get better from that.”
For Nebraska to make a deep postseason run, the freshman hitters are going to have to adjust to what they’re seeing in the Big Ten and make a leap.
“They’ve got to understand the level of competition is going up,” Cook said. “Teams are better, they’re better defensively, better blocking, just because they’ve been in it now looking at it for six or seven weeks. So they have to be more creative, and they can’t get away with maybe what they got away with a month ago. It’s just understanding and adjusting and adapting to the level of play, the size of the block and all that.”
One freshman who has adjusted well to the Big Ten is libero Lexi Rodriguez, who has won Two Big Ten Freshman of the Week and one Big Ten Defensive Player of he Week awards in the last month. She’s averaging 4.49 digs per set.
“She’s just doing what we recruited her to do,” Cook said. “We recruited her to come in and be a great libero. She’s just getting used to the game, understanding now, she’s seen a lot of hitters and so she’s just getting used to speed, the tempo, the hitters, what they do, the shots they hit. She still gets out of position a few times, but but she’s doing a nice job. Nobody serves her. We want her to pass more balls; I’m trying to get her to do that but she’s too nice.”
Cook said he’s encouraging Rodriguez to be more aggressive in her pursuit of balls sent over the net, but he doesn’t want to put her in difficult situations while doing it.
“You’ve got to be really careful with that,” Cook said. “CC McGraw takes balls and so does the Penn State libero, but you also see them get aced because they’re trying to take balls and not pass well. We have good passers, we want to trust them, but we’d like Lexi to take a little more area if she could and get that mindset.”
Cook compared Rodriguez to one of the best liberos to come through the Nebraska program in Justine Wong-Orantes thanks to her mix of athleticism and instincts.
“I think it’s a combination of both,” Cook said. “She’s like Justine — Justine started as a freshman, Lexi’s starting as a freshman. They have great instincts. She’s way better athlete than Justine and they see the game really well. I think that’s the other thing, I always say they have a sixth sense. Justine was that way and Lexi is similar.”
Nebraska’s next opportunity to show progress will be Thursday as the Huskers head to Champaign for round two with No. 25 Illinois.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.