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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Alter Ego and Defined Role Driving Lauenstein’s Leap in Year Two

September 01, 2022

After starting just three matches during her freshman season, sophomore opposite hitter Whitney Lauenstein matched that total in Nebraska’s first three matches of 2022, averaging 3.44 kills per set on .353 hitting in three sweeps at the Ameritas Players Challenge.

After an up-and-down first season in Lincoln, the Waverly product has a newfound sense of confidence — and a new alter ego. 

Lauenstein is “The Assassin,” an identity she developed while working with Brett Haskell, Nebraska’s director of sports psychology. With her highflying ability and powerful swing, the name suits her game, and sliding into that persona helps her to focus on the task at hand in the match and manage her emotions.

“I have to be really calm and quiet and then just go up and kill it and block it,” Lauenstein said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been going with. It’s kind of fun.”

Lauenstein said she’s embraced her alter ego because it’s given her a solidified role on the team after feeling like she didn’t really have one as a freshman as her playing time fluctuated throughout the season. 

“She’s been on a mission all summer and into practice,” Coach John Cook said. “She’s starting to figure it out a little bit. Last year was freshman year and just trying to survive and now I think she’s on a mission. She knows what she wants and she’s gone after it. She wants to play. She wants to be great. She got lifter of the year; that’s a big telltale sign right there.”

Lauenstein’s athleticism was always a big plus for her, but she hit the weight room hard to further develop herself physically, sharing the program’s Lifter of the Year award with senior Kenzie Knuckles.

PrepVolleyball.cm had Lauenstein ranked as a top-20 recruit nationally coming out of high school, but she found herself struggling to earn consistent playing time for the Huskers. She saw action in just 67 sets, the fewest of Nebraska’s five pin-hitters, and hit just .130. Cook trained Lauenstein and fellow freshman Lindsay Krause as opposite hitters, and Krause spent most of the season as the starter. 

“She knew she had to get better,” Cook said about Lauenstein. “It’s pretty black and white. Hopefully we have a bunch of kids that want to continue to get better and are patient and work. But that’s not even a conversation we have to have; these guys know what they need to do to be on the court. We make it very clear stat-wise and performance-wise what has to happen. So she knows.”

Right side was a new position for Lauenstein, who played on the left in high school and for her club program. She struggled with the transition at first, but things finally started clicking for her over the summer.

“I feel like that’s when I kind of just embraced it,” Lauenstein said. “I also feel like I was kind of denying it for a long time. I was like ‘No, I’ve played outside my whole life, I don’t want to switch it up in college. I finally peaked, I don’t want to switch it up and then have to start all the way at the bottom again.’ And so I feel like this summer I was like ‘OK, all right, let’s go.”

The extra work in the weight room has helped her get a little bit faster, a little bit stronger and a little bit more explosive, but the she already had all the physical tools needed to excel. The real leap she made was a mental one.

Whitney Lauenstein (13)

Whitney Lauenstein celebrates a kill against Kansas during Nebraska’s spring exhibition match in Grand Island. Photo by John S. Peterson.

“She’s worked on the mental part of it and the breathing,” Cook said. “She was a 300-meter hurdle runner; you better get psyched up to do that. But you can’t play volleyball doing that. Volleyball is a long time, and so she’s worked really hard on that. The test will be when we get in really tight matches, can she stay with it?”

Lauenstein plays with a lot of emotion, perhaps too much at times. The more fired up she gets, the wilder her attacks tend to get. Through meditation and visualization (she uses the Calm app) and work with Haskell (like her alter ego) she’s taken big strides.

“She’s always been a really good competitor and that’s been really evident for Whitney as a player on our team, but I think this year, she has a lot of composure and she doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her,” sophomore setter Kennedi Orr said. “That’s so much growth for her and that’s such a special characteristic to have in a teammate.”

However, while Lauenstein has learned how to better control and channel her emotions, she still plays with the same enthusiasm — and power — that earned her the moniker “Big Hit Whit” as a freshman, and Orr is grateful to have someone like her at the pin.

“That is super awesome because Whitney’s always going to bring a bunch of energy with everything she does,” Orr said. “It’s always super big; she’s never just hitting the ball and it goes down, it’s going straight down, her blocks are going straight down. So she’s always an energy-bringer and always puts a smile on everyone’s face.”

That mission Cook mentioned? It involves, as Orr said, putting smiles on her teammates’ faces, and it was born at the end of last season.

“Last year I just got to watch all my teammates and how we played in the national championship and I just don’t really want that to happen again,” Lauenstein said. “I want to see happy faces after that and us winning it and holding the trophy and wearing the hats and the confetti falling and on and on.”

The Ameritas Players Challenge was a strong start to the season for Lauenstein, but Cook is still looking for more from her. The nonconference schedule gets progressively tougher from here leading up to the start of Big Ten play, and The Assassin will have plenty of chances to prove herself and continue on her mission.

“She has the confidence to take over matches and take big swings when it matters most,” Cook said. “That’s her next step.”

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