The youngest position on an overall young team in Nebraska is middle blocker with all three players in their first or second year with the program. Even so, the competition for playing time and starting spots has been just as fierce as every other position as sophomores Bekka Allick and Maggie Mendelson and freshman Andi Jackson — all top-10 recruits prior to arrival in Lincoln — all state their case to start.
Allick is the most experienced player in an otherwise inexperienced group. The 6-foot-4 Waverly graduate had a terrific debut campaign for the Huskers, averaging 1.86 kills per set on a team-best .326 hitting percentage and 1.01 blocks per set. She earned All-Big Ten Second Team and All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors and won Big Ten Freshman of the Week back-to-back weeks in October.
“She’s so competitive and I think that she’s good to keep playing a big role for us as she was last year and just really get after it again,” Mendelson said of Allick.
With the 6-2 system requiring plenty of substitutions, Coach John Cook also gave Allick an opportunity to serve and play in the back row for one rotation at different points. She showed off a wicked serve at times with 10 aces, but she struggled with consistency, leading the team with 51 service errors. In addition to improving her transition attack, serving has been a big focus for Allick this offseason.
“For me last season, I think what hurt the team as well as just me just as a volleyball player was not being able to do that for the team,” Allick said back in the spring. “So I’m just really focusing on that and doing it at random moments, because I might not serve for about an hour and then right at the end of practice when the score is 24-all — because as you guys saw, we play intense, so it really does feel like a real match. I’ve got to be able to show up and serve, and so I think just being able to do it well in practice and keep the pressure in practice.”
Mendelson — still the youngest player on the team after reclassifying to 2022 to join the Huskers last season — also saw plenty of playing time last season, appearing in 14 matches and 42 sets. The dual-sport standout had to split her offseason between training with both the basketball and volleyball programs at Nebraska and competing for the United States at the FIVB U18 World Championships.
The 6-foot-5, 18-year-old sophomore did not travel with the basketball team during its tour of Greece earlier this month, but she did make the trip to Brazil with the volleyball team and also now has a full spring of beach and indoor training under her belt.
“I definitely feel a little bit more prepared for the season,” Mendelson said. “I know last year, I was here playing basketball in the summer and I had two days to get ready for volleyball and I was thrown into fall camp and it was hectic, but it was awesome. And this year, it’s going to be hectic, but I’m going to be a little bit more prepared.”
In addition to the split offseason, Mendelson also bounced back and forth between middle blocker and opposite hitter as injuries prompted Cook to experiment with lineups. With six pin-hitters on the team including two on the right, Mendelson has focused solely on middle blocker this offseason.
“I’m very confident going into the season,” Mendelson said. “I know last year that I trained both and I was ready in whatever position they needed me, but now I’m excited to focus on middle this year and get that position down and really learn how to be a middle blocker in the Big Ten.”
Mendelson averaged 1.12 kills per set on .182 hitting and 0.56 blocks per set during her first tour through the Big Ten, an experience that taught her a lot about what it takes to be successful at that level.
“I was definitely a bouncer when I got here and now I’ve learned that it’s not all about bouncing,” Mendelson said. “There are some big girls across the net and you’ve got to learn how to score, not just straight down.”
The newcomer to the group is Jackson, the 6-3 middle from Brighton, Colorado, who was the top-ranked middle blocker recruit in the country, ranking sixth overall according to PrepVolleyball.com.
Jackson made a good first impression on Husker fans, notching seven kills on eight swings in her lone set of work during he team’s exhibition win against Wichita State during the spring. Jackson showed off her incredible vertical leap and punishing swing to help the huskers finishing off the Shockers in a sweep.
“She’s very competitive, very athletic, and I think that’s what exactly what we need to keep pushing ourselves forward and keep pushing the middles as a group to get better,” Mendelson said.
While Jackson had plenty of success swinging away in the exhibition, she’s since learned it’s not always going to be so easy to get kills in the Big Ten. She said she’s worked hard to expand her range of shots throughout the offseason.
“Coming from a small town, there’s not a huge block,” Jackson said. “You’re playing against girls who don’t really play club, so it’s definitely a lot different because now you’re up and you have four if not six hands in your face. So learning to just hit off the top and, like Coach says, break their fingers. That’s definitely been different for me because I’m used to just bouncing it. So switching the dynamic to hit high and not hit so low.”
Jackson said the two sophomores have been very supportive since she arrived as the three middles compete for the two starting spots.
“Our dynamic is really good,” Jackson said. “Maggie and Bekka do an amazing job helping me. Obviously I’m new so they do a really good job just telling me what to do, helping me. If I have a question for them, they’re never not going to answer it. So I would say our dynamic is really good. We’re all very close and we all support each other a ton.”
While Nebraska has plenty of young talent, replacing the nation’s leader in blocks in Kaitlyn Hord won’t be easy, especially with a shift back to a 5-1 that will include smaller front lines in certain rotations. However, Mendelson is confident in her group’s ability to step up and provide the blocking necessary to keep Nebraska among the nation’s elite on defense.
“We’re always working on blocking every day,” Mendelson said. “We have our separate session while everybody else serves we go and block. I think that’s really important for us to really get our form down, really get our eye work in and I think we’re going to be really good this year.”