Nebraska’s young setters found themselves in a difficult situation over the weekend as an injury to Nicklin Hames pressed Anni Evans and Kennedi Orr into their first extended playing time in Lincoln.
There were ups and downs for both, but ultimately they got the job done, setting Nebraska to two wins and a 6-1 record in sets. One thing that makes life easy for setters is good passing, and that’s an area where Cook has seen his team take strides from a year ago thanks to a combination of individual improvement and competition for playing time.
“We’re an improved passing team, which I told them they had to be,” Cook said. “When you’ve got eight people that can pass and your four best are gonna play, it helps them focus on passing. Lexi [Sun] was struggling a little bit, so I’ve got somebody I can put in for her. She knows she’s got to pass the ball to be in the back row, and all of them know that.”
Passing held them back a year ago, especially in big matches. On Saturday against Kansas State, Nebraska got off to a great start in that area.
“Our first game we hit .460; that’s pretty good,” Cook said. “K-State’s a very good team; they’re going to do really well this year, that’s my prediction. But to hit .460 against them first game, and if you just watch our video, play after play Kennedi is literally just standing at the net and every ball is coming right to her. So that’s a good sign as opposed to running all over the gym bump setting, which we did a lot of that last year. We got to be pretty good out of system because we got a lot of practice on it.”
Nebraska’s offense fell off later in the match as Orr “hit the wall” in Cook’s words. Saturday’s match was her first start since tearing her ACL early in her senior season of high school. Cook has been cognizant of his freshman setter’s reps and has been rotating her with Evans during practice.
“We’ve been rotating just to keep her fresh, and that’s the most she’s played and the longest she’s played since March of 2020,” Cook said. “So you have put that in perspective a little bit. We were humming the first two games and then we hit the wall. But that’s what fatigue does, your technique goes out the window and then It’s hard to keep your rhythm as a team.”
Nebraska rediscovered that rhythm in the fourth set once Evans took over, and Cook wasn’t surprised by his walk-on sophomore’s performance.
“We see it all the time in practice,” Cook said. “She’s a really good setter. Anni’s challenges have been can she serve tougher, play better defense, and can she hold her own blocking? She did a nice job when she went in there. She’s worked really hard and again she, she’s a very, very good setter.”
Even with back-up setters, Nebraska got pretty creative at times offensively, targeting hitters both at the net and out of the back row, and Cook said they’re going to do even more of that once Hames gets healthy or the back-ups settle in even more. Cook pointed to the way Karch Kiraly used Jordan Thompson on the Olympic team and how that prevents blockers from loading up on the pins.
“We won a national championship with Sarah Pavan, doing the same thing,” Cook said. “You’ve got to have a player that can terminate the ball to make it worth it, and also play defense. Lindsay Krause is doing a nice job with that — and pass, sometimes, so she’s doing a pretty good job with that. It just gives us more firepower and it’s the way the big girls play.”
Krause started at the opposite hitter spot, rotating with fellow freshman Whitney Lauenstein in Nebraska’s 6-2 against Colgate then playing most of the watch against Kansas State. She averaged 2.57 kills per set but also led the Huskers with 10 attack errors, five of which came in the second set against the Wildcats on Saturday. Cook said that, like Orr, Krause appeared to hit a wall.
“The great thing about Lindsay is she hit the wall, she had five straight errors in game two, but she had some huge kills in game four,” Cook said. “Now, as she gets more experience, she’s got to eliminate five errors in a row. She gets one error and then the next one’s a kill or in the court. So she’s got to figure that out, but she stepped up at the end which is great. That makes her a great competitor. And we were talking about it, like, ‘Do we yank her out? We’re gonna let her see if she can fight through this,’ and she got a couple of big swings.”
Cook has a lot of options, and he’s still sorting through all of them. Does he stick with his outside hitters in the back row, or does he give junior Kenzie Knuckles, a two-year starter and team captain, and sophomore Keonilei Akana, who led the Huskers with four aces, more playing time?
“There’s our dilemma,” Cook said. “That’s what I wake up in the middle of the night right now thinking about.”
Cook will get three more matches to continue experimenting with his lineups this weekend as Omaha, Georgia and Arizona State come to Lincoln for the Ameritas Players Challenge. There are connections to Nebraska’s program with all three opponents, most notably the Bulldogs who feature Lauren Stivrins’ sister Amber as a starting outside hitter.
“We talked about that a couple of years ago,” Cook said. “They were supposed to come last year because Lauren was a senior. We just delayed it a year. So yes, there’s definitely the sister connection there and Georgia wants to come up and play. So it’s great.”
The elder Stivrins won’t get a chance to play against her sister as she continues to work her way back from back surgery, but Cook said he’s hopeful that Lauren will be able to start hitting in practicing soon. Nebraska was also supposed to face Pepperdine, featuring Nicklin Hames’ sister Kayleigh, last season, but they weren’t able to reschedule that match for this year.
First serve against the Mavericks at the Devaney Center is set for 11 a.m. CT on Friday. The Huskers will also face the Bulldogs on Friday with a 6 p.m. start time.
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.