John Cook returned his entire stating lineup from a 28-5 team. Yet when the Huskers took the court for the first time this season, there were a couple new faces in that first rotation.
One of them was Missouri transfer Kayla Caffey, who beat out two-year starter Callie Schwarzenbach and highly-touted freshman Kalynn Meyer for the second starting middle blocker spot alongside captain Lauren Stivrins.
Caffey learned shortly before the first match of the season at Indiana that she had earned the start.
“Whenever he wrote the lineup up on the board I was like ‘OK,’ and I was ready to go,” Caffey said.
Caffey had six kills on .273 hitting and three block assists in three sets in her Husker debut. Cook went with Schwarzenbach the following day, but Caffey was back in the lineup last week against Maryland and she started both matches. On Friday, she notched six kills on .214 hitting and five block assists. She followed that up with the best performance of her young Husker career with eight kills on .538 hitting (just one error) and five block assists.
“I just think she gets better every match, every week, playing in our system,” Cook said after the last Maryland match. “Her blocking is really improving. She’s probably one of our most improved players, so it’s fun to see her get results out there for her hard work. She’s been working really hard and she had to make a lot of changes from what she’s done in the past to how we train here. This weekend I saw a lot of the things we’ve been working on come through and that’s why she’s got some really good stats.”
Caffey has come a long way since she decided to enter the transfer portal after graduating from Missouri with two seasons of eligibility remaining. Caffey posted a .408 hitting percentage as a redshirt sophomore in 2019, good for ninth in the country, but decided to explore her options and Nebraska’s pitch stood out to her.
“I didn’t know much about Nebraska, but whenever I entered the transfer portal Coach Cook reached out to me and I just really liked a lot about his coaching philosophy,” Caffey said. “I liked what I saw about Nebraska, the fan base. I got to talk to the girls and I really liked them. I got to walk through what a day in the life of a Nebraska volleyball player looked like. It’s pretty night and day, the facilities, the training, the coaching. It’s pretty awesome, so I definitely wanted to be part of that.”
Getting used to the way they do things at Nebraska is never easy for a transfer, but Caffey had to make that transition during a pandemic that shook up the offseason dramatically.
“When she first got here, she wasn’t ready to play,” Cook said. “She had been off, hadn’t done much, so it’s been a little bit of a long road back for her. She’s got a great arm and she’s got great vision. Those things are hard to coach. She’s got a lot of natural ability, but those two things — vision and a great arm — are hard to coach and we just have to figure out a way to take advantage of it.”
Caffey said that practice at Nebraska is “night and day” different from what she had grown accustomed to during her four years at Missouri, and it wasn’t easy for her initially.
“I think at first it was a little overwhelming just because I had to master practice at Nebraska,” Caffey said. “It was very different from what I was used to and it was just like an influx of information coming in pretty much changing everything that I knew. That was definitely overwhelming at first, but now I think I’ve got the hang of it and it really allows me to be free and play and really grow.”
Caffey said assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand, who works closely with the middle blockers, has helped to transform her game, teaching her techniques both as an attacker and blocker that allow her to show off her full athleticism. Cook said she has the ability to hit the ball in every direction from different body positions. She is somewhat undersized for her position at an even 6-foot, but Nebraska has some experience with smaller, more athletic middles. The Huskers won a national championship with a 6-foot-1 Briana Holman at the net (Holman also transferred to Nebraska from an SEC school).
“Blocking-wise there was a lot, then attack-wise it’s just taking advantage of her speed,” Cook said. “She really didn’t run much stuff behind the setter at Missouri off one leg so we wanted to develop that because you have to be able to do that in the Big Ten. She’s gotten really good at that but she never did that. We try to take advantage of her speed and her arm and her movement. Sometimes when you’re a little smaller and faster, there are advantages to that as opposed to being taller and slower.”
Caffey has 13 block assists in nine sets, but Cook still sees plenty of room for improvement in that area of her game.
“We’ll see how it goes, but she’s a dynamic jumper and a very good athlete,” Cook said. “We’re trying to train her how to block successfully in the Big Ten, so we’ll see how it goes. So far, she’s done some nice things.”
Caffey said she was excited and grateful to get the starting gig, but she knows that’s something she’s going to have continue to earn every day in practice because of the depth in talent on the team and at her position in particular.
“Practice is so fun every day just because everyone is so talented,” Cook said. “It’s literally like game day every day. We’re in there, we’re competing, we’re grinding, we’re working hard. The coaches are coaching, we’re just receiving endless feedback. Practice is almost just as fun as matches just because we train so hard. It’s really fun and it’s really a unique environment to be a part of.”
The Huskers are off to a 4-0 start this season as they get ready for a trip to Rutgers, and Caffey has played a big role in that early success as she continues to settle into life as a Husker on and off the court.
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.