The Nebraska volleyball team will return its entire starting lineup from the 2019 season, but there’s been a lot of change as well since the Huskers bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight.
Hail Varsity recently caught up with Coach John Cook to go position-by-position through the roster and look ahead to the 2020 season. First we covered the setters, and next up is a look at the middle blocker position.
Returners: Senior Lauren Stivrins (3.55 kills per set, .374 hitting, 1.07 blocks per set), Junior Callie Schwarzenbach (1.24 kills per set, .263 hitting, 1.11 blocks per set)
Newcomers: Junior Kayla Caffey (Missouri), Freshman Kalynn Meyer (Superior, Nebraska)
Departures: Redshirt Freshman Fallon Stutheit (UNK)
Both starters are back in the middle and the position got a lot deeper this offseason as well.
It starts with Nebraska’s All-American co-captain Lauren Stivrins. The 6-foot-4 middle blocker from Scottsdale, Arizona, is entering her fifth and final year at Nebraska. During her time in Lincoln, she’s been a part of one national champion and one national-runner-up and has racked up individual accolades including multiple All-America and All-Big Ten honors.
After playing in a strong supporting role to Mikaela Foecke as a sophomore, she elevated her game even further this past season as a go-to option for setter Nicklin Hames.
“You look at probably through the end of October, she was playing at the highest level of any player in the Big Ten in my opinion, and you just look at the stats for that,” Cook said. “Then when we had the grad manager incident, and that really impacted a lot of people, it impacted our team and I think she was one of the ones that was impacted by that.”
Through the end of October (Nebraska’s first 19 matches), Stivrins averaged 2.64 kills per set on .407 hitting. Over the last 14 matches, her numbers fell off a bit to 2.43 kills per set on .329 hitting. The next step for Stivrins is consistent greatness.
“I think Lauren is on a mission to get back to where she was and do it for a complete season playing at the level she was at,” Cook said. “Her numbers were ridiculous.”
Whereas Stivrins took her game to another level, Callie Schwarzenbach seemed to stagnate in her second season as the second middle blocker. Her blocks average dropped from 1.33 to 1.11 and while her kills average rose from 1.09 to 1.24, her hitting percentage dropped over 30 points to .260. She also played through a broken thumb.
Schwarzenbach should be healthy heading into the 2020 season, though and Cook needs more from her offensively.
“Callie has to go to another level, as a player, as a competitor,” Cook said. “We didn’t get enough out of that position last year, so somehow we have to figure that out. Either she has to step it up or hopefully we’re going to have some competition in that position.”
Cook added two more scholarship middle blockers to replace Fallon Stutheit, a walk-on who transferred to play at UNK after redshirting in 2019.
The first addition is Kalynn Meyer, the 6-foot-3 middle from Superior, Nebraska. PrepVolleyball.com ranked her as the No. 21 recruit in the 2020 class and she’s fourth-ranked player at her position.
Meyer averaged 5.6 kills per set on .389 hitting and was named an Under Armour First-Team All-American as a senior. Under normal circumstances, Meyer would have played her final season of club ball before joining the Nebraska program in June, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut the club season down after a couple of weeks.
“I’m bummed for Kalynn, talk about somebody who’s missing out on her senior year of high school and all the things that she was going to have a chance to accomplish,” Cook said. “But the bottom line is she’s not playing club volleyball, and out of everybody she needs that. I don’t know how working on the farm is going to get her ready. That’s why it’s so important to get her here this summer and get her going so she feels comfortable. We need her to come in and get after it.”
The other newcomer was a late addition in Missouri graduate transfer Kayla Caffey who arrives in Lincoln with two seasons of eligibility remaining. The 6-foot Chicago native spent four seasons at Missouri but redshirted in 2016 then missed 2018 with an injury, receiving a medical hardship.
"Kayla will bring a lot of offensive firepower to our team," Cook said in a release after Caffey signed with Nebraska. "She was one of the leading hitters in the SEC and we like the fact that she's a graduate student and has a lot of experience. She played at a storied high school program, Mother McAuley in Chicago. She's got an offensive-oriented game and is very athletic. We're excited about the impact she can make with our team.”
Caffey averaged 1.77 kills per set on .408 hitting and 0.88 blocks per set this past season, and as a redshirt freshman she put up 1.54 kills per set on .323 hitting with 0.99 blocks per set.
Between Schwarzenbach, Meyer and Caffey, Cook is hoping to find a strong complement to Stivrins in the middle which should give Nebraska one of the best duos in the Big Ten and take pressure off the outside hitters.
“You look at Wisconsin that won the Big Ten, they’ve got two dominant middle blockers in [Dana] Rettke and [Danielle] Hart who you have to spend so much time worrying about,” Cook said. “That’s one part of Lauren’s game. Lauren also brings an emotional fire and competitiveness to our team, and that’s so important because not everybody has that … You saw that in the Minnesota match on the road, her famous speech now.”
Abby Johnson, a walk-on freshman from Aviston, Illinois, could play either middle blocker or outside hitter as well, giving Cook even more depth should he need it.
Nebraska has one of the best players in the country and plenty of depth at middle blocker, and if the Huskers can pass well enough to stay in system that position could be a major weapon for the Huskers in 2020.
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.