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 began with the middle blockers on Monday. Up next is the most important position on the team: setter.
Whereas Nebraska had to replace its entire middle blocker group from last season, all three setters who saw the court last season are back for another year. However, that doesn’t mean things are going to look the same this season. Let’s dive into it.
Departures: Nicklin Hames (sort of)
Returners: SO Kennedi Orr, JR Anni Evans
After four years, 120 matches, 4,636 assists, 1,362 digs and 114 aces, Nicklin Hames is handing off the reins as the starting setter to sophomore Kennedi Orr. The super senior is still participating in some setter drills to keep her skills polished in case the Huskers need her at some point, but the rest of her time is spent with the defensive specialists.
“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,” Kenzie 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.”
Orr was the top-rated recruit in the 2021 class according to PrepVolleyball.com. She suffered a torn ACL during her senior season at Eagan High School in Minnesota before enrolling at Nebraska in January and rehabbing with the Huskers. Orr recovered for the start of the 2021 season and split time at setter with walk-on Anni Evans in the first two matches as Hames recovered from an ankle injury.
Orr played in seven sets then spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline, and even though she’s gotten very little opportunity to show what she’s capable of, Cook believes it’s her time to take over. That was the plan before the COVID-19 pandemic threw eligibility timelines into chaos across the country and it remains the plan even with Hames back for another season.
“She really didn’t get a chance to show us, but it’s her time,” Cook said. “I think it’s important when we recruit somebody to have a plan, and we’ve got to give her an opportunity. And the COVID thing, if it wasn’t for COVID Nicklin wouldn’t be here. We could let them compete, but we’re going to give the keys to the car to Kennedi and see what happens. And Anni’s competing with her too. Anni’s not gonna go down without a fight here, but competition is good. We’ve got competition at every other position.”
Evans has the edge in experience after earning a serving role in Nebraska’s situational double-substitution over the past two seasons, and Cook rewarded her effort by placing her on scholarship for the spring semester. However, Cook’s ideal scenario is for the 6-foot Orr to grab the position and make it her own.
“She can play at a much higher level than Anni and Nicklin can because she’s higher above the net,” Cook said about Orr. “She touches 10 feet; we’ve got outside hitters that touch 10 feet. She’s got really big hands so she can hold the ball a little bit and she can look over here and set it back there. She can just do really cool things with her hands because her hands are so big, so that’s one of her gifts. And then I think she’s got a great demeanor for a setter. She makes hitters feel good and just connects with them really well. She’s got just a personality. She’s pretty quiet, but she’s a fierce competitor. So she has that magical part of it. She’s going to really compete really hard but she’s also not going to be in anybody’s face, and I think on a women’s volleyball team, that’s pretty important.”
Madi Kubik said at Big Ten Media Days that she’s looking forward to playing with Orr, calling her a stud and praising her mentality.
“I played against her in club my entire club career and she just, like, doesn’t give shit,” Kubik said. “She just like goes and runs her offense and puts her hitters in good positions and she’s a great blocker. I’m really excited to see what she’s going to do this fall and kind of in the next couple weeks when we get into two-a-days. She’s a little stud.”
Orr missed some time during the spring and Cook didn’t think she was ready for a full match heading into the team’s exhibition match against Kansas in Grand Island, so Hames started at setter. However, it was Orr who orchestrated the Red team’s offense during the Red-White Scrimmage on Saturday.
“I think the biggest thing [I wanted to show] was just that I can run an offense,” Orr said after the scrimmage. “Instead of just being a setter who can just set the ball and put it in a good place, I think I was trying to run an offense during that game and my teammates helped me out a lot and I think it worked out really well tonight.”
Mission accomplished. Orr finished with 35 assists, nine digs, four blocks and three kills on six attempts while guiding the Red team to a .311 hitting percentage in a 3-0 sweep over the White team.
“If you look at Kennedi, we hit over .300, which is rare for a Red-White game,” Cook said. “Her distribution was really good. If you look at the numbers that the outsides have, that’s something that’s really hard to coach. Setters have a feel for keeping a balanced attack.”
Those numbers for the outsides: Kubik had 13 kill on 26 swings (.385 hitting), Lindsay Krause had 12 kills on 27 attempts (.407 hitting) and Whitney Lauenstein was a bit more error-prone but still chipped in nine kills on 21 swings (.238 hitting).
Cook said Orr has been up and down throughout preseason practice and still has a ways to go, but her performance in the scrimmage in front of a sold-out Devaney Center crowd was an important step forward.
“There’s been a couple of days she’s been at this level, but I had no idea how she would do tonight,” Cook said. “That was a big worry for me, how confident she would be and how she would do. She hasn’t played in a long time, so this will be a good match for her to build on.”
How good Orr becomes this season could go a long way toward determining where this team’s ceiling is in 2022-23. Cook has a strong back-up plan with Hames and Evans available, but as he said, it’s Orr’s time to show what she can do.
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.