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.
Senior Jazz Sweet
It’s not often that a multi-year starter who has played a key role for a championship team loses her spot as a senior, but that’s what happened to Jazz Sweet this season.
The lefty from Topeka, Kansas, made an immediate impact as a freshman, averaging 2.22 kills per set on .273 hitting for a team that went all the way in 2017. She took a step back offensively as a sophomore, averaging 2.24 kills per set on .205 hitting, but she had her most productive season as a junior in 2019, putting up 2.77 kills per set on .279 hitting.
This past season, Cook put Sweet in a competition with Riley Zuhn, and the sophomore beat her out. For part of the season, Sweet was limited to playing mostly as a blocking specialist in Nebraska’s double-substitution, replacing Nicklin Hames int he front row. Cook turned to her a few times throughout the season looking for a spark but she wasn’t able to fully recapture that starting role.
Then Zuhn went down for the season and Sweet had to step in, starting the final seven matches of the season. Sweet hit .400 or better in four of those starts but was at .160 or worse in the other three including minus-.087 in the season ending loss to Texas in the Regional Final.
Overall, she averaged 1.51 kills per set on .237 hitting. However, in her seven starts, she was back in line with her career numbers at 2.39 kills per set on .276 hitting. Her best performance of the season came at home against Iowa as she put up 12 kills on .733 hitting.
Sweet deserves credit for staying ready rather than shutting it down after losing her starting spot and she responded well when she finally heard her number called, but Sweet was never able to find the consistency Nebraska needed from her.
She also never realized her goal of becoming a six-rotation player, a recurring topic during the 2018 and 2019 preseasons. Sweet apparently never showed John Cook enough as a server or defensive player in practice to get a shot to play in the back row during matches.
Sweet has decided not to use her extra season of eligibility and so leaves Lincoln with nearly 1,000 kills in her career. The Huskers wouldn’t have won the 2017 national championship without her, but unfortunately she wasn’t able to rediscover that same magic during her NCAA Tournament run as a senior.
Sophomore Riley Zuhn
Riley Zuhn, the 6-foot-5 sophomore from Fort Collins, Colorado, bounced between middle blocker and outside hitter as a freshman, playing sparingly. She appeared in 25 sets spread across 17 matches, totaling seven kills and seven errors on 26 attempts.
With more depth at middle blocker this season, Zuhn moved back to outside hitter full-time, and with Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik locking down the L1 and L2 positions, Cook decided to give Zuhn a chance to compete with the incumbent at opposite hitter in Sweet. She won that battle and opened the season as the starter on the right side.
Zuhn started pretty strong, putting up 2.62 kills per set on .291 hitting and 1.0 blocks per set in Nebraska first four matches against Indiana and Maryland. Then she fell into a rut and couldn’t pull herself out of hit, hitting above zeros two times the rest of the season.
Zuhn hit .000 for three straight matches, snapped the streak with a .133 performance against Minnesota then hit negative in both matches against Illinois. She played well in Nebraska’s first match against Ohio State with six kills on .357 hitting and three blocks then went right back into the negative the following day in what proved to be her final start.
Zuhn came off the bench and played just one set at Iowa, misfiring on her only swing, and when the Huskers returned to Lincoln the doctors examined her and diagnosed her with a season-ending foot injury.
Cook likes Zuhn’s size and defensive ability at the net, but she’s going to have to find a way to be much more effective offensively if she’s going to continue to start.
Sweet was a natural fit at the right side spot as a southpaw, but Nebraska doesn’t have any more lefty hitters on the roster. It will be interesting to see how Cook handles the position moving forward.
Does Zuhn take a big step in year three? If not, Cook could turn to one of his incoming freshman. Nebraska signed three outside hitters in the 2021 class in Lindsay Krause, Ally Batenhorst and Whitney Lauenstein.
Lexi Sun’s decision could have ripple effects here. If she opts against returning for another season, Kubik and Zuhn will be the only returning outside hitters. That means at least one freshman would be in line to start from day one. Does Zuhn slide over to the left side while Krause or Batenhorst steps on the right? Does Zuhn stay at the left while Krause plays at the L2 spot? If so, does Batenhorst get a chance to compete against Zuhn for the starting right side spot? Or does Sun return and give Cook the option of rolling out the same starters at the pins as day one of the 2020-21 season?
Cook will have some big decisions to make heading into the 2021 fall season.
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.