The 2019 volleyball season has come to an end with the Stanford Cardinal reigning supreme for the third time in the past four years.
For the first time since 2014, the Huskers did not play into the final week of the season, falling just short in the regional final to eventual runner-up Wisconsin. The Huskers finished 28-5 overall including 17-3 in Big Ten play.
This week, Hail Varsity is looking back and looking ahead with a position-by-position breakdown of the 2019 Huskers and the reinforcements on the way. We’ve already looked at the pin-hitters, the setters and the middle blockers, and today we close things out with a breakdown of the defensive specialists.
Freshman Kenzie Knuckles
Nebraska needed a new libero after the graduation of Kenzie Maloney and to give herself the best chance at winning that job, Kenzie Knuckles — PrepVolleyball.com’s 37th-rated recruit (third-ranked libero) and an Under Armour first-team All-American — enrolled early and went through the spring alongside fellow early enrolled Madi Kubik.
That decision paid off for the two freshmen as they both secured starting roles. Knuckles, a 5-foot-8 defensive specialist from Yorktown, Indiana, beat out Megan Miller and Hayley Densberger in the spring and fall and played in 32 matches this season, missing one because of injury.
Knuckles made the transition from playing outside hitter in high school to libero at Nebraska and averaged a team-high 3.83 digs per set while guiding Nebraska to a top-10 defense nationally in terms of opponent hitting percentage. The Big Ten named her to its All-Freshman team.
Knuckles had 22 digs and six assists in her first career match, a four-set win against Creighton. She cracked double digits in digs in 27 matches including six with more than 20. She posted a career-high 24 digs in Nebraska’s five-set win over Penn State.
Knuckles was all over the place as a server. She got off to an incredibly slow start, managing just five aces while committing 22 errors in here first 13 matches. She settled in after that however, and served up 13 aces with 13 errors in her next 11 matches. However, she fell off again down the stretch, recording just two aces (both in the same match) and 13 aces over Nebraska’s last eight. Overall, she finished the season with 20 aces and 48 errors, and she’ll need to cut down on the latter next season in order for the Huskers to live up to the normal Nebraska standard in terms of serving.
Knuckles still has plenty of things she needs to polish up, but for a converted outside hitter playing libero in the Big Ten as a true freshman, it would be hard too ask for more than what she gave the team in 2019.
Sophomore Megan Miller
Miller didn’t win the libero job, but she still played a big role this season. She played in all 33 matches and 119 sets, averaging 2.07 digs per set with nine double-digit-dig performances. She posted a season-high 18 digs in Nebraska’s five-set win over Penn State.
Knuckles missed the Wichita State match and it was Miller who filled in for her, finishing with 14 digs, three assists and an ace.
Miller was arguably Nebraska’s best server for most of the season. She finished with 24 aces and 24 errors, a step up from last season (20 aces and 30 errors). She had six matches with more than one ace with a high of four against UCLA.
If there’s one area in which she needs to take a big step forward it’s in serve receive. Among the four Huskers regularly targeted by opposing servers, she was third in reception percentage at .936. She had 23 reception errors, 10 more than a season ago. Wisconsin recognized hat weakness and went at her, resulting in five serve receive errors.
Junior Hayley Densberger
Hayley Densberger carved out a steady role for herself as a sophomore in 2018 as a serving specialist and back-row defender. She appeared in 103 sets across 32 matches, averaging 1.20 digs per set and serving up 11 aces.
This year, however, she saw her role reduced and her numbers were career-lows almost across the board. The Malcolm product played in 28 matches and 69 sets, recording 23 total digs and five aces with 17 service errors. She posted a season-high five digs against Wichita State during nonconference play.
Sophomore Chen Abramovich and Freshman Emma Gabel
Both players redshirted this year after suffering offseason injuries (Gabel, a freshman out of Lincoln Pius X, actually tore her ACL back in the spring playing club). They were both around practice but neither participated this season.
Nebraska doesn’t have any defensive specialist among its 2019 recruiting class, so the additions to that position will come in the form of Gabel and Abramovich if they’re able to return to good health.
Otherwise, this same group will be back next year, only a year older and more experienced.
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.