Nebraska Volleyball Player Kenzie Knuckles Against Minnesota
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

2020-21 Nebraska Volleyball Player Reviews: Defensive Specialists

April 29, 2021

The offseason has arrived for Nebraska volleyball — four months later than normal. Before we turn the page and start thinking about the true 2021 season, it’s time to look back at the 2020-21 Huskers.

We’re going position-by-position to break things down. First up was the setters, and now it’s time for the defense specialists.

Sophomore Kenzie Knuckles

The sophomore from Yorktown, Indiana, held down the libero position for the second straight year, leading a Nebraska defense that was second in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage at .168.

From a numbers standpoint, Knuckles took a step forward in some areas and a step back in others. Let’s focus on the positive first.

Knuckles struggled mightily as a server early in her career, tying Lexi Sun for the team-high in errors last year at 48 while only producing 20 aces (0.17 per set). This season, she was third on the team with 17 aces (0.26 per set) and recorded just nine service errors in 66 sets. She was the only Husker with more aces than errors.

However, I’m not sure she made the same strides as a defender and passer. Her digs average dropped from 3.83 to 3.50. Last season, Knuckles was the second-most targeted Husker from an opponent serving perspective and she sported a .964 reception percentage. This season, opponents served at her more than anyone else, and her reception percentage dropped to .941 as her errors per set average nearly doubled from 0.17 to 0.33.

Nebraska made strides from a passing perspective this season, but that part of the game failed the Huskers again in the NCAA Tournament against Texas. As the leader of the defense, Knuckles is going to have to take another big step forward for the Huskers to make a deeper run in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Freshman Keonilei Akana

Keonilei “Kaylei” Akana was a late addition to Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting class after decomitting from USC, and she stepped right into the right back role vacated by Megan Miller who transferred to Northwestern.

The Hawaii native averaged 2.41 digs per set, third on the team, and recorded eight double-digit-dig games including a season-high 17 in a five-set win against Ohio State. She struggled a bit in serve receive at times, nearly matching Knuckles with a .946 reception percentage and 0.18 errors per set (second behind Knuckles). She was the third-most-targeted Husker.

Akana established herself as a quality server early on as she was second on the team in aces as a freshman with 21 (0.32 per set) while recording just 26 errors. She had a season-high five aces with just two errors in a four-set win at Michigan.

From a digging and serve receive perspective, Akana’s numbers were actually better than Miller’s in 2019, so it appears like Akana was a terrific find by the coaching staff and her freshman season was a good one to build off of moving forward.

Senior Hayley Densberger

Hayley Densberger, the walk-on out of Malcolm, Nebraska, saw her role fluctuate throughout her career. She played more early than late, seeing her most extensive playing time as a sophomore.

Densberger struggled somewhat in 2019 when she averaged a career-low 0.33 digs per set and and had a five-to-17 aces-to-errors ratio. She didn’t play a ton more this season, but she did make more of her opportunities, averaging 0.38 digs per set and serving up eight aces (0.15 per set) to 15 errors.

Densberger had a season-high eight digs and two aces in a four-set win over Michigan, and she matched that with two aces in Nebraska’s regional semifinal win over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament as well.

Densberger will not return for her extra season of eligibility.

Redshirt Freshman Emma Gabel

Emma Gabel, the walk-on out of Lincoln Pius X, tore her ACL in the spring of 2019 and missed her entire freshman season, taking a redshirt year. She was healthy this year, however, and before the season began Coach John Cook called her one of the team’s most improved players.

Cook turned to Gabel a couple of times this season when he was looking for a spark. She played two sets and recorded two digs against Rutgers and then played in a set against Michigan as well. She successful passed all three serves that came her way.

Looking Ahead

The Huskers will haveyoung defensive specialist group next season with Densberger opting against returning. Knuckles will be heading into her third season but will still be classified as a sophomore while Gabel will be a freshman again next year as well.

Cook signed the top-rated libero in the 2021 class in Lexi Rodriguez, PrepVolleyball.com’s 10th-rated recruit nationally out of Sterling, Illinois. The pandemic wiped out Rodriguez’s senior season, so she enrolled early at Nebraska instead and spent this season practicing with the Huskers.

Rodriguez should provide some healthy but fierce competition for Knuckles who will have to fight to hold onto the libero job next season, and with Gabel in the group as well Cook will have some good options available.

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