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2022 Nebraska Volleyball Position Previews: Defensive Specialist

August 24, 2022

Hail Varsity is getting you ready for the top-ranked Cornhuskers’ 2022-23 season opener on Friday with a position-by-position roster breakdown.

We’ve covered the middle blockers and setters so far. Up next is the defensive specialist positions.

The “Legion of Boom” — Jaylen Reyes’ name for the all-DS back row made up of Lexi Rodriguez, Kenzie Knuckles and Keonilei Akana — played a big role in Nebraska leading the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage last season. Akana transferred out of the program, but the other two are back and Nebraska’s plan is for Nicklin Hames to slide over the take her place.

Departures: Keonilei Akana (Texas)

Returners: SR Kenzie Knuckles, SO Lexi Rodriguez

Newcomers: SR Nicklin Hames (sort of), FR Maisie Boesiger

Hames has been a great server and an elite defensive setter throughout her four years as Nebraska’s starting setter, which should translate well to a defensive specialist role. She participated on some setter drills during preseason practices token her skills sharp in case Nebraska needs her to slide back to setter at some point, but for the most part she spent team drills with the defensive specialists, a change that took some getting used to for everyone.

“I got here a semester after Nicklin, so it’s been different because the Nicklin that I know is just our starting center, she’s our leader, she’s a captain, she’s all these things,” Knuckles said. “So it’s a weird place for all of us, I would say, not really knowing what what that looks like for her and for us. But we’re getting through it and she’s still the same old person, so it’s pretty easy.”

Coach John Cook said Hames replacing the departed Akana at right back would be a “logical choice,” but he believes Hames can play any position in the back row.

Nicklin Hames passes the ball during their annual Red-White Scrimmage at the Devaney Center. Photo by Eric Francis.

“She’s going to have to prove it,” Cook said. “And I know she’s been working on passing — that’s the most important thing — but I’ve never had a setter that wasn’t a great passer … Look at Kayla Banwarth was a setter, Justine Wong-Orantes was a setter, and we converted them into liberos and they did pretty well.”

Hames served as the DS off the bench for the Red team in the Red-White Scrimmage, contributing two digs and an assist.

“She’s awesome,” Rodriguez said. “I always knew last year she was a great defender and even just to see her pass has been crazy. She’s a natural. So I think the defense and that part of her personality as a volleyball player comes natural to her.”

Hames will have good company in the back row with the reigning AVCA National Freshman of the Year in Rodriguez and Knuckles, who went through her own position change last season after spending her first two years in Lincoln as the team’s libero.

As the team’s libero, Rodriguez led the Huskers with 4.33 digs per set as a freshman, earning National Freshman of the Year, first-team All-America, North Region Freshman of the Year and first-team North All-Region honors from the AVCA as well as Defensive Player of the Year, first-team all-conference and All-Freshman Team plaudits from the Big Ten. Heading into year two, she’s looking to make an even bigger impact.

“I think this year I can improve just more on my leadership and kind of owning the back court, especially at my position,” Rodriguez said. “I’m kind of in charge of controlling the defense, passing, communicating to my hitters and my other back row defenders. And so I think just taking more charge and ownership and that will be a huge step for me to take this year.”

Her coaches and teammates took note of her effort as Rodriguez was among the three team captains the team announced on Tuesday, joining seniors Knuckles and Madi Kubik. Her experience at the Pan American Cup with the U21 USA national team his past summer prepared her for the this new role.

“On the national team this past summer, I was the team captain, so it kind of helped me understand my leadership style and how I like to lead and what fits right for me,” Rodriguez said. “It kind of helped me learn that each teammate is different and you kind of have to talk to them and interact with them differently to kind of get them out of their head or hype them up more. So it was a good experience to have that under my belt.” 

In addition to leadership, Cook also highlighted serving and out-of-system setting as skills he wanted to see her improve. 

Knuckles was named a captain for the second straight year, only this time she’s a senior and has taken on an even greater responsibility.

“It’s been a little bit of an adjustment just because we’ve had older players in the past that kind of just show the younger players by experience and just leading them by example,” Knuckles said. “Now that those players are gone, it’s kind of just up to us to be like, ‘Hey, this is how we do things, this is Nebraska culture, these are our expectations.’ So just being able to implement those things and talk people through it, that’s been a little bit of a change. But our team’s super close.”

Knuckles provides some versatility as a back-row player who loves to take swings. In fact, she played outside hitter for the White team in the Red-White Scrimmage. She also finished second on the team in aces last season with 35 while only committing 31 errors.

The only true newcomer to the back row is Maisie Boesiger, a walk-on from Norris who played setter in high school. She enrolled in January and went through the beach and indoor training seasons in the spring. She served as the libero for the White team in the scrimmage on Saturday and put up seven digs, two assists and one ace.

Akana’s serving will be difficult to replace, but the Huskers still have a talented group of defensive specialists that should be one of the strengths of the team again in 2022.

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