The primary theme for Nebraska’s preseason practice is competition with so many starting spots up for grabs, and no position embodies that more than outside hitter.
The one constant at the position over the last four years, Madi Kubik, is gone. Now, the Huskers have two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman essentially competing for two starting spots, and within that competition, the pins are also looking to show Coach John Cook they’re ready to play all six rotations as well.
Cook said atBig Ten Media Days he’s breaking his evaluation of the pins into tiers.
“Who can play six rotations? That means they’re doing everything really well,” Cook said. “OK, who can kill balls? Because then you can always take them out of the back row. Who’s got a great serve and who can pass? That usually is what’s going to separate who plays and how many rotations and what position they’re playing, we call it L1 or L2 — next to the setter or two way from the setter. And then the last thing, I guess, would be who can kill out the back row? If you can kill balls out the back row, you’ve got a better chance to play six rotations.
“The hard thing for me is we’ve got a lot of people that can do a lot of that. So now who can do it the best, and so that’s a lot of competition.”
Lindsay Krause has played primarily opposite hitter since her arrival in 2021 but is now getting a chance to focus on her more natural position on the left side, something Cook told her from the beginning would be her future.
Krause shared her mindset heading into the competition.
“I think something that’s really going to help is ultimately knowing that I’m not going to be working against them every day in practice, I’m going to be working about how I was yesterday and being better than I was yesterday and personally growing that way,” Krause said. “Because if you put all your focus on making sure you’re better than somebody else, that’s going to ultimately mess with your mindset because you’re not going to be better than that person every single day of the season. That’s just not realistic. So can I just be the best person that I am today? Can I be better than who I was yesterday? Can I see constant improvement in what I’m doing and then let the rest work out?”
Krause appeared in 31 matches and 106 sets last season, primarily as the second opposite hitter in Nebraska’s 6-2 system. She averaged 2.25 kills per set and led all Nebraska pins in hitting at .269.
After an up-and-down first two months, Krause found her stride and averaged 2.95 kills per set on .359 hitting over her last 12 matches, notching double-digit kills in seven of the 12. She averaged 3.25 kills per set on .378 hitting in her three NCAA Tournament matches as well. Krause said the key to maintaining that level of play over the course of a full season is trusting her training.
“Something that Coach always says is trust your training, so I feel like trusting that we’re ready for this and I personally am ready for this because it’s something that we’ve practiced and done a million times and realizing that you can just trust what you’re doing and then it’s going to work out,” Krause said.
To this point in her career, Krause has been almost strictly a front-row player, though like all pins that join the Husker program she’s striving to earn a six-rotation role by showing Cook she can defend, pass and serve as well as put the ball away.
“I feel very confident in the growth that I’ve personally made,” Krause said. “Being on the Nebraska volleyball team, no matter who you are, what age you are, a spot on the court is never given and so that’s obviously going to be my goal for this year is no matter what capacity, I want to be working on the court. And so we’ll just see how that works out and I’m really looking forward to fall camp.”
Krause’s classmate — and fellow former top-three recruit according to PrepVolleyball.com — Ally Batenhorst did get a chance to play six rotations last season, though it wasn’t under ideal circumstances. When Kenzie Knuckles went down with a torn ACL during the last week of the regular season, Batenhorst played all the way around.
“In the NCAA [Tournament] it’s really challenging, obviously,” Batenhorst said. “I remember after that happened with Kenzie, I was like, ‘Oh, goodness, I know exactly what’s coming for me.’ And I was super excited. It was an opportunity. It was definitely intimidating, but it was a challenge that I was ready for and I had prepared for and we prepare for that every day. So I think that experience will be very beneficial considering I’ve kind of already played in front of people and done that before, so I’m ready for this year.”
The 6-foot-5 Texas native averaged 2.33 kills per set at outside hitter last season, though she hit just .190. Batenhorst said she has been working on tweaking her swing during the offseason, and the work showed during Nebraska’s exhibition and Brazil matches.
“There are specific technical things that I’ve been working on and I’m kind of changing a little bit, so I’ve definitely been going through development with that,” Batenhorst said. “It’s been really good and I think it’s definitely changed my game a little bit, so I’m really excited to get out there.”
Batenhorst said she adjusted her swing in an effort to get to the ball more quickly, and she feels like the changes have helped her a lot.
“Obviously I need to be great to be able to be a six-rotation outside hitter and I’ve been working on it a lot in the gym,” Batenhorst said. “After these past few seasons, I think I’m ready to step up to that plate and kind of take more responsibility on the court. I think I’ve been doing really well and I think I’m ready for the season to kind of unleash, I guess.”
Krause and Batenhorst have a big leg up in experience, but freshman Harper Murray showed during the spring and summer that she’s ready to push for a starting spot right away as well. As PrepVolleyball.com‘s top-ranked player and the 2023 Gatorade National Player of the Year, Murray arrived on campus with plenty of hype. As an in-state product who committed to Nebraska before her freshman year of high school, Krause is all too familiar with hype, and she shared the advice she’d give to her young teammate.
“I feel like realizing that you don’t have to be perfect 1,000% of the time, because that’s not a realistic goal to have,” Krause said. “Know that you are going to have bad games, you’re going to have bad practices, not everything’s going to always work out, especially when we come to Big Ten season when we’re playing the best teams every week for two and a half months. And so just really settling in and being confident in your skills and abilities almost without the validation from those outside sources because ultimately they will slow down and they’ll stop and they might even start to say some bad things about you.”
Murray led Nebraska with 12 kills on .391 hitting in the Huskers’ sweep over Wichita State in the spring exhibition, showcasing her power and athleticism at the pin as well as her ability to hold her own in the back row. The opportunity to get a few matches and months of training under her belt before her first preseason camp has Murray feeling confident.
“It was the best situation possible for me and the other freshmen as well; we all came together,” Murray said. “Getting a head start on relationships, coaches, practice plans, all that type of stuff, it’s for the better for sure, and I think that’s what’s prepared us for this.”
The fourth member of the position battle is sophomore Hayden Kubik, who has a year of training in the program under her belt but saw limited playing time in 2023. While learning behind her older sister, Kubik played in eight sets across four matches, totaling seven kills and one error on 22 swings (.273 hitting).
Though most of her experience came in clean-up time with the result never in doubt, there was one big exception. With Batenhorst leaving Nebraska’s match against Creighton in the first set with an injury and Nebraska running a 6-2, Cook called on Hayden Kubik to step in as the second outside hitter alongside Madi Kubik, and the freshman delivered in her first real competitive playing time as a Husker. She rose to the occasion, finishing with six kills on .250 hitting, five digs, one block and one assist while making some big plays down the stretch in the five-set win.
The 6-2 system last season and Krause playing on the right allowed Cook to get his top four pins — Madi Kubik, Batenhorst, Whitney Lauenstein and Krause — on the court every night. With a return to a 5-1, that number drops to three with Florida transfer Merritt Beason likely owning the spot on the right. That leaves Cook with the tough task of narrowing a field of four down to two on the left side, though with the talent at the position, it’s a good problem to have.