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 already looked back — and looked ahead — at the outside hitter and defensive specialist positions. Today, it’s time to take a look at the setter position headlined by a special freshman.
Freshman Nicklin Hames
The 5-foot-10 setter out of Maryville, Tennessee, became the first true freshman setter to win the full-time starting job at Nebraska under John Cook when she took the court in the season opener against Florida, but that wasn’t anything new for her.
Hames helped lead her high school to five straight state titles after beginning her varsity career as an eighth grader.
Hames had gigantic shoes to fill replacing Kelly Hunter in Lincoln, but she nearly made it six straight championships after leading the Huskers to to the national title game. She was the only freshman starting setter at the Final Four.
She averaged 10.49 assists and guided the Nebraska offense to a .265 hitting percentage, fourth in the Big Ten. Hames was second on the team with 40 service aces (eighth in the Big Ten). She excelled on the defensive end as well, averaging 3.32 digs per set (13th in the conference). Hames set a program record — not just for a freshman, but for all players — with 25 double-doubles including four in the postseason. She was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman Team.
“I just learned about the double-double thing, that’s pretty cool,” Cook said ahead of the team’s trip to Minneapolis for the Final Four. “A lot of great setters have had the chance to do that. The other thing is we’ve hit .350 or higher in six out of the last seven matches I think, or seven our of the last eight. I think that’s more of a compliment to what she’s doing and how much she’s improved because we were having a hard time breaking .200 in the Big Ten and now we’ve been hitting at a better level and it’s all because of her improvement and how hard she’s worked.”
Hames said the area of the game in which she improved the most over the course of the season is the location of her sets and her connection with her hitters. Now she’ll get a whole offseason to continue to build chemistry with her returning hitters and develop in the Husker Power program.
“We’re in good hands with Nicklin,” Brooke Smith said after the Huskers fell to Stanford in the National Championship. “She’s such a fighter and a competitor and is just a workhorse. She brings it every day. She’s an incredible one; she’s one of the best. The team’s going to be in good hands the next three years.”
I’m sure Cook agrees.
Senior Brooke Smith
Smith was one of just three seniors on the team this season, though her story was a little different. She came in with Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney and is going out with them, but she took a detour to Manhattan, Kansas, along the way.
After spending her first two seasons in Lincoln as a reserve setter and serving specialist, she transferred to Kansas State seeking a chance to get on the court as a setter. The Wildcats had a solid season, but Smith started feeling a little homesick — not for her hometown of Weatherford, Texas, but for Lincoln.
With Cook’s blessing — and with Nebraska lacking depth at setter — Smith transferred back to Nebraska for her senior year. The Huskers received bad news just hours before their season-opener against the Gators — Smith’s appeal to play right away had been denied by the NCAA. She had to sit out Nebraska’s first six matches before winning her appeal, and she made her season debut on Sept. 9 against Iowa State.
Smith saw action in 12 matches and 24 sets as a senior, notching nine assists, three digs and an ace. She was part of the blocking substitution Cook experimented with prior to sophomore middle blocker Anezka Szabo suffering an ankle injury that put her — and that strategy — on the shelf. But Smith’s greatest contributions this season came from her leadership, helping co-captains Foecke and Maloney to guide a young team to success.
Junior Mari Kurkova
Kurkova, a native of Opava, Czech Republic, was one of two late additions to the program from outside of the United States along with defensive specialist Chen Abramovich. Kurkova enrolled at Nebraska as a graduate transfer with two years to play. The 5-foot-10 setter has been part of the Czech Republic National Team program, playing on the U20 team in the 2015 World Championship and the senior national team in the FIVB Grand Prix.
She saw action in six sets across four matches this season, three of which were during the nonconference. Cook tried her out in his dual-substitution that replaced Hames in the front row with a better blocker before Smith was ruled eligible. She had one assist, one service error and two ball-handling errors this season.
Nebraska does not have a setter in its 2019 recruiting class. This is going to be the Hames show for three more years, which is a very good thing for the Huskers.
Kurkova is set to return as the back-up and will have a full year in the program — and in the country — under her belt.
Further down the line, Texas native Nicole Drewnick, who plays both setter and opposite hitter at 6-foot-2, is committed to Nebraska for 2020 and Kennedi Orr, a highly-touted setter out of Minnesota whose sister is the starting setter for Iowa, is committed for 2021.
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.