The first weekend of the season had a different feel to it for Nebraska and Coach John Cook.
The Huskers had a lot of new faces or familiar faces in new roles on the floor down in Gainesville, and that includes new libero Kenzie Maloney.
Maloney plays a significant role as a defensive specialist during her first two years in Lincoln but has stepped into the libero role after All-American Justine Wong-Orantes exhausted her eligibility.
Maloney had 18 digs, three assists and two aces against Oregon and followed it up with 18 digs and eight assists against Florida. However, she is still discovering all that comes with playing that role.
“From night one to night two, she was much better,” Cook said. “What Justine was so good at was taking charge of the court and making everybody around her better. Kenzie was so worried the first night just doing her job. She didn’t do that the second night; we talked to her about it and she started doing a much better job. The first time you’re out there, it’s a whole different deal than practice, especially playing against those teams in that environment on TV. It’s a whole different vibe.”
The differences from defensive specialist aren’t just mental; they’re physical as well.
“You’re out there five-and-a-half rotations and you’re running the court,” Cook said. “Last year she was just in there to pass and dig and she didn’t have to worry about that because Justine did it. That’s the biggest adjustment. She has a lot of people relying on her.”
>> Four of Nebraska’s five true freshmen saw the court for the Huskers in the first weekend. Outside hitter Jazz Sweet, the No. 12 recruit in the 2017 class, started at opposite hitter and played in every set, but right behind her was defensive specialist Hayley Densberger, a walk-on from Malcolm, Nebraska, who played in seven of the nine sets primarily as a serving sub.
“She’s one of our six best servers,” Cook said. “I told them the six best servers play, and she’s been one of our six best. We found a way to get her in and serve and she did a great job. It seemed like she was serving a lot of end of games and I was thinking ‘If she misses, we’re in trouble,’ and she nailed them. She did a nice job for a freshman.”
>> Cook also did something rare against Florida: he took his setter, redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton, out of the game so that he could get an extra blocker on the court.
“Anezka [Szabo] is such a good blocker and Sydney [Townsend] has done a really good job of setting so we felt pretty comfortable,” Cook said. “Those were some pretty big hitters we were going against.”
Atherton is listed at 5-foot-11, while Szabo, a true freshman outside hitter, is 6-foot-3. Cook said he couldn’t remember the last time he made that kind of substitution.
>> The game itself was different as well as the VERT Challenge experimented with eliminating the 10-minute intermission between sets two and three and instead using the standard three-minute break that happens between all of the other sets.
“I kind of liked it because you just keep moving, but it’s harder to make adjustments because you can’t get on the white board and you can’t show them things,” Cook said. “You’re just doing it in between games, so it’s a little tougher in that regard … I think the 10 minutes is good but I could live with three minutes.”
>> One challenge the young Huskers have had to deal with is the reduced practice time. According to Cook, the abbreviated preseason resulted in nine fewer practices for the Huskers than they had three years ago, and rules dictate that teams take an off day following the weekend’s action, and a travel day does not count.
>> The good news for the Huskers is that Cook expects to have senior setter and team captain Kelly Hunter back on Friday barring any setbacks. However, if she does return she will not be playing in all three matches of the Americas Classic, which includes two matches on Friday and one on Saturday afternoon.
>> Nebraska will kick things off this weekend with a game against Maryland-Baltimore County, whose coach, Ian Blanchard, met Cook at a coaching clinic a couple of years back. That meeting is what led to UMBC participating in the event, and Cook has gone so far as to give his tickets to the Nebraska football game against Arkansas State to Blanchard.
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.