While Nebraska has starting spots up for grabs at most positions, one spot that seems fairly straightforward is opposite hitter, despite the position looking completely different than one year ago.
Whitney Lauenstein led Nebraska in points last season while Lindsay Krause led all pins in hitting percentage as the two rotated at opposite hitter in a 6-2 system. Now, Lauenstein has stepped away from volleyball and Krause is training to play on the left side.
That left Nebraska with a need on the right side heading into the offseason, and Coach John Cook and his staff moved quickly to land former Florida Gator Merritt Beason in the transfer portal.
All the 6-foot-2 opposite hitter did in her first five months on campus was to earn the trust and respect of her new teammates enough to be voted a team captain alongside fellow junior Lexi Rodriguez.
Beason was an All-SEC selection last season for the Gators, averaging 3.35 kills per set on .261 hitting, 1.92 digs per set and 38 aces. She started 31 matches as a freshman as well, averaging 2.24 kills per set on .221 hitting in 2021 while earning a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team.
Beason made a big jump from freshman to sophomore year and is looking to do the same after a full offseason in the Nebraska program.
“Volleyball-wise, I think I’ve grown a lot in passing and things of that sort,” Beason said at Big Ten Media Days. “Serve receive I would say is definitely the skill that I’ve probably grown the most in.
“But as a person and that kind of aspect of things, I think I’ve done a really good job of — everyone always talks about not being defined by your sport, and I think that’s a really hard thing to grasp and to kind of understand until you’re at the level that we’re at. And so I think that’s one thing that I’ve kind of developed the most and that I’m very, very proud of is that I’ve done a very good job of understanding how I practiced that day doesn’t determine how good of a person I am or things of that sort. And so I think I’ve grown the most in that area of my game, kind of the mental. Yes, I’m playing at a very, very high level but not letting that affect my day-to-day life.”
While Beason is effective at the pin, something that makes her unique is her ability to play all six rotations as an opposite hitter and provide a threat out of the back row. That’s something Cook said he hasn’t had at Nebraska before.
“That gives us the opportunity to run what’s called a true international system or what the USA team does internationally, and the men do, is to have a true opposite that hits front row and back row,” Cook said. “We’ve never done it before. I love the system. Ohio State does it. Florida did it last year with Merritt. So we’re thinking really hard about that.”
Like all of the pins on the left, Beason is competing to earn a six-rotation role, which has implications for the rest of the lineup as well.
While Beason seems like an easy pick to start, if she does take the court first on Aug. 25 she’ll have definitely earned it. Freshman opposite hitter Caroline Jurevicius, the third-ranked recruit at her position and 17th-ranked player overall according to PrepVolleyball.com, has been one of the standouts of camp according to classmate Andi Jackson.
“I would say Caroline has had so much improvement and I’m really proud of her because I know she’s been working so hard on the right side,” Jackson said. “She has improved so much since spring and she was really, really working at it during this summer.”
The daughter of former NFL wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, Jurevicius averaged 4.9 kills on .360 hitting as a senior at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin in Chardon, Ohio. Cook said she’s made some big strides since arriving on campus in January.
“Caroline’s had some really good days,” Cook said. “She is probably the hardest hitter on our team. She’s probably the most physical blocker. She improved 300 points, I think, in Husker Power Performance Index over the summer. So she’s doing some things what were the reason we wanted to recruit her, because it’s hard to find players that can hit the ball and be that physical. She gets kills just by how hard she hits the ball.”
With Nebraska returning to a 5-1 system, expect to see one person playing the majority of the rallies on the right side rather than the two-woman rotation fans saw last season in the 6-2. Between Beason and Jurevicius, the short- and long-term futures of the opposite hitter position at Nebraska look to be quite bright.