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.
On Thursday, Hail Varsity began its season review with a look at the outside hitters led by a program legend in Mikaela Foecke. Today, we’re tackling the defensive specialist position led by another player who will go down in the history books right next to Foecke.
Senior L Kenzie Maloney
Great players have come and gone over the last four years, but Foecke and Maloney are the only two who were there for all four Final Four runs.
As a senior, Maloney was at the center of the best defensive team in the country as the Huskers allowed opponents to hit just .136 during the regular season. From her libero spot, Maloney played in every set and average a team- and career-best 4.03 digs per set. She was arguably the best passer on the team and also served up 37 aces, third on the team behind Foecke and Nicklin Hames. On top of all that, she managed to record four kills and no errors on 10 attempts.
She was named a First-Team All-Big Ten performer as well as a Third-Team All-American.
Maloney delivered some of the best highlights of the season, chasing down balls that she had no business reaching or getting underneath swings or deflections that likely would have hit the floor with anybody else in that spot. She tested as the best athlete who has come through the Husker Power volleyball program and put that athleticism on display every time she set foot on the floor.
Freshman DS Megan Miller
Miller joined the program as the fourth-rated libero and 55th overall recruit according to PrepVolleyball.com after a standout high school career as an outside hitter at Alexandria-Monroe High School in Indiana.
Miller’s role shifted as the season played out. With Lexi Sun recovering from an injury, Miller opened the season as a starter and played quite a bit. Once Sun joined the lineup, that took away playing time for the defensive specialists since Sun played all six rotations. Miller even logged a handful of DNPs midseason.
However, she kept working to improve — particularly as a server — and earned her way back into the lineup and she closed the season as the top option at defensive specialist. She averaged 2.01 digs per set and recorded just 13 serve reception errors on 273 attempts (right in line with what Foecke did this season from a percentage standpoint). She also served up 20 aces.
Miller recorded six matches with double-digit digs — three in Big Ten play and three in the NCAA Tournament — with a high of 23 at Michigan on Nov. 10. She served a season-high three aces in a five-set win over Creighton on Sept. 6.
Sophomore DS Hayley Densberger
The sophomore walk-on out of Malcolm played a role as a freshman and stepped it up even more this season. She played a lot early in the nonconference, then held onto her spot early in conference play after Sun got cleared to play.
However, she had some struggles passing the ball and that opened to door for Miller to jump her on the depth chart. Even so, Densberger continued to play all season as a serving substitution. She finished the year with 16 aces while playing in 32 matches and 103 sets.
She averaged 1.2 digs per set but had the lowest reception percentage among those with 200 or more attempts, committing 20 errors on 227 receptions. The key to more playing time for Densberger is shoring up her passing.
Freshman DS Chen Abramovich
Abramovich was a late addition to the 2018 recruiting class, joining the Huskers from Kfar Saba, Israel. She only appeared in one set as a freshman and didn’t record any stats, but she contributed to the team in practice on the B side all season.
Nebraska added two new members to the back row in Kenzie Knuckles and Emma Gabel.
Knuckles is a 5-foot-8 libero from Yorktown, Indiana, ranked 37th overall and third at her position by PrepVolleyball.com. She was named an Under Armour First-Team All-American after leading Yorktown to a 32-0 record and a state title while averaging 4.2 kills and 3.9 digs per set.
Gabel is a 5-foot-7 walk-on from Lincoln Pius X, the same program that produced Sydney Townsend, another recent walk-on defensive specialist for the Huskers who helped the Huskers win a lot of matches. She averaged 5.7 digs per set and served 24 aces while leading the Thunderbolts to a runner-up finish in the Class A state tournament as a senior.
Who replaces Maloney as the libero? That is one of the most pressing questions facing John Cook as the Huskers head into the offseason. Miller should get every opportunity to earn that job, but Knuckles is enrolling in January and will get a chance to push for a starting role right away.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.