A very strange college volleyball came to a close over the weekend. Kentucky is the national champion while the Huskers (16-3) finished at No. 6 in the final AVCA Poll.
Before we head into the shortened offseason, it’s time to look back at the 2020 season that actually happened in 2021. We’re going to break things down position by position, starting with the setters.
Junior Nicklin Hames
Hames certainly showed promise as a true freshman starter in leading the Huskers to a national runner-up finish, and last year she earned All-Big Ten First Team recognition. This year, at least to my untrained eye, she took another step forward, although the numbers were pretty consistent from one year to the next.
As a sophomore, Hames averaged 10.89 assists, 2.87 digs, 0.41 blocks and 0.22 aces per set while guiding a Nebraska offense that averaged 13.8 kills per set on .267 hitting. This year, the 5-foot-10 setter from Maryville, Tennessee, put up 10.91 assists (most in the Big Ten), 2.91 digs, 0.35 blocks and 0.24 aces per set. This year’s Huskers averaged 14.0 kills per set on .270 hitting.
Hames recorded a double-double in 10 of her 19 matches this season after hitting that mark in 16 of her 33 matches in 2019. Her season-high for assists actually came in one of Nebraska’s three losses as she dished out 57 assists in five sets against Ohio State. Her season-high for digs also came in a loss with 18 against Minnesota.
The final numbers ended up looking pretty similar, but I thought she got those numbers a bit differently this season. Hames and her hitters talked about her increased aggressiveness and creativity in terms of who she was setting and when, which was a result in part of assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand’s return.
The biggest beneficiaries of the tweaks to Nebraska’s offense and Hames’ improvement were the middle blockers who saw 1.3 more sets per game come their way. Hames struggled at times to get on the same page with her middles in the past, but this year Hames’ sets were more accurate more often and it led to a near-record-breaking year by Lauren Stivrins and a strong first season in Lincoln for Missouri transfer Kayla Caffey.
In part because of her size, Hames isn’t necessarily a dynamic attacker or blocker, but she’ll still make plays at the net from time to time that really fire up her teammates (and herself). Hames’ fiery personality has driven Nebraska’s success over the last two years as a team captain and will do so again in the 2021 fall season.
Freshman Anni Evans
When sophomore Nicole Drewnick first opted out of the 2020-21 season and then decided to enter her name into the NCAA Transfer Portal, it opened the door for the walk-on from Waverly to see some playing time as a true freshman.
John Cook would have had a tough time getting Hames to leave the court, so Evans didn’t get many opportunities as the back-up setter to run the offense. However, she did get plenty of experience running the B-side in practice and she also stepped into the serving role in the double-substitution Cook is fond of using to bolster Nebraska’s block by replacing Hames with a bigger player in the front row.
Evans played in 15 sets across nine matches, recording three assists, two digs, one ace and one error. That ace came on her first play as a Husker in a four-set win over Maryland. After the match, her teammates spoke glowingly of her work ethic, which should serve her well throughout her Nebraska career.
The future was already in Lincoln this spring as Kennedi Orr, the No.1 recruit in the 2021 class, graduated from high school and enrolled at Nebraska early. She got to witness what it takes to be a Nebraska volleyball player first-hand even though early enrollees were not eligible to play in matches. The eligibility was irrelevant for Orr, however, as she has been recovering from a torn ACL suffered back in September.
Nebraska is set to have Hames and Evans back again next season, and Orr will join the picture once she’s full healthy to raise the level of competition Hames sees in practice even further. After the season, Hames will have to face the same decision Nebraska’s seniors are deliberating right now — whether or not to return for an extra year of eligibility. She should be a senior academically but will be classified as a junior athletically next 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.