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. Next up is a look at the outside and opposite hitters.
Returners: Senior Lexi Sun (3.57 kills per set, .270 hitting, 25 service aces, 2.45 digs per set), Senior Jazz Sweet (2.77 kills per set, .279 hitting), Sophomore Madi Kubik (2.73 kills per set, .218 hitting, 2.52 digs per set), Sophomore Riley Zuhn (25 sets played, 7 kills, 6 blocks)
Newcomers: Freshman Abby Johnson (Aviston, Illinois)
Departures: Sophomore Capri Davis (Texas), Junior Anezka Szabo (Kansas)
Lexi Sun, the senior from California who spent her freshman year at Texas, led Nebraska with nearly 500 total points in 2019 as she stepped into the L1 position following the departure of Mikaela Foecke.
Sun recorded double-digit kills in 28 of her 33 matches including three 20-plus-kill performances and she had 12 double-doubles. She also sported the lowest reception percentage on the team (.918) and hit below .200 eight times including twice in the NCAA Tournament. At her best, Sun is an all-conference and potential All-America player. The next step for her is to play near her ceiling more on a consistent basis.
“With Lexi, again, developing her back-row skills — can that go up another level?” Cook said. “Can Lexi carry a big load than an L1 outside hitter has to carry night in and night out? Can she carry that load and get the big kills when we need them? She showed glimpses of doing that and now she’s got to learn how to do that every night.”
Madi Kubik was a top-five recruit nationally in the 2019 class and lived up to the billing by winning the L2 starting job and playing six rotations from day one and earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
“I thought she should have been the national freshman of the year; she was for Volleyball Magazine I think,” Cook said. “I think she had a pretty good freshman year, and what I kept reminding her of when she would get down on herself is tell me how many other freshmen are playing at a top-10 school, at a top-10 program playing six rotations? Lexi hasn’t done that until her junior year, [Mikaela] Foecke didn’t do it until her junior year. About the last one we had was Jordan Larson. Point being is she did really well.”
Kubik did some spectacular things as a freshman, but she has plenty of room for improvement as well after hitting just .218 and serving up 42 errors to just 14 aces.
“Her thing now is physically, mentally, can she be consistent and play at a high level every day?” Cook said. “That’s the adjustment for a lot of these guys; in high school, they’ve got to show up for a couple big matches and they’re so talented and gifted compared to everybody else they can cruise. Now, they can’t. It’s learning how to grind it every day and be a great player every day. That comes through experience and being in our program.”
Kubik wasn’t the only freshman outside hitter on the team last season. Riley Zuhn was a blue-chip recruit as well, but with the talent Nebraska had returning plus Kubik earning the role she did, there wasn’t much playing time left over for Zuhn. Even so, the 6-foot-5 outside hitter from Colorado played a variety of roles for the B-side in practice, adding depth at both middle blocker and outside hitter. Cook made it clear that the coaches see her future at the pin.
“Beach season was great for her because she was getting to play as an outside hitter and do everything,” Cook said. “We want her on the outside, that’s where we recruited her for. This spring I saw her go to another level physically and in her beach game. We’re excited to see what she can do because she brings a physical force to the net that’s hard to coach.”
Zuhn wasn’t able to earn a steady rotation role, but she did get to play in 17 matches and that experience plus the season training under Cook’s staff in practice will serve her well heading into 2020.
“The last few weeks of the season we couldn’t stop her in practice, so she knew she was playing at a really high level and she carried that into the spring and into beach and into her workouts … She’s on a mission and I think she knows she can help this team and she knows she can play here now,” Cook said. “She’s gotten through her freshman stuff and she’s also shown she’s really resilient because we were moving her around all the time, sometimes one week here and one week here, and she never complained and just embraced it. It’s helped her probably as a volleyball player to play the multiple positions.”
On the right side, Jazz Sweet is back for one more run. After making a splash as a hitter during her freshman year, the southpaw has spent the last two seasons working to expand her game enough to play in the back row as well. She hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but it remains her primary goal.
“A step forward would be Jazz becomes a six-rotation player and being more of an impact player playing all the way around and continue to do a good job at the net, which she’s been doing,” Cook said. “She had great stats down the stretch, she had great stats in the regional final.”
Sweet averaged 3.5 kills per set on .306 hitting during the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Anezka Szabo’s departure was a hit to Nebraska’s depth on the right side, but Abby Johnson’s arrival should help fill the void. The 6-foot-4 walk-on from Aviston, Illinois, could play either opposite hitter or middle blocker. She averaged 3.3 kills per set on .358 hitting and 0.9 blocks per set as a senior at Breese Central.
Nebraska has an incredibly talented group of outside hitters that, with a bit more consistency, should be able to stack up against any team in the country 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.