October took its toll on a Nebraska program used to winning and winning a lot. The Huskers dropped five of their eight matches during the month. Senior captain Kenzie Maloney said the team wasn’t playing with confidence and Coach John Cook said he was even questioning himself.
“You always question yourself when you’re not being successful, so I’m questioning am I training them right, am I doing everything right, is there something else I’m not thinking about or is there some way we can be better?” Cook said. “It’s just the life of a coach.”
Turn the calendar and suddenly the Huskers are right back on track after a five-set win over arch-rival Penn State to open November. Last week, Cook had lamented how much the schedule had made it tough to practice the way the team needed to in order to correct what had been holding the Huskers back, but last week’s Friday-Saturday home matches provided the opportunity he was hoping for.
“I just felt like we reestablished our foundation and how we have to play,” Cook said. “I think we all went into that weekend feeling better like we were really well prepared. We had a chance to work on some things and put a couple new wrinkles in. Absolutely that was a great week, but now we’ve got to manage and try to find two wins and manage their fatigue. We’ve got to travel the next four matches so now it becomes a balancing act again.”
During the team’s struggles, sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins reached out to Cook — via text — asking what she needed to do in order to get the team a win.
“I think it was more of I told her that she needs to be a great player, she needs to make people around her better, she’s got to continue to stay in what we call ‘beast mode’ in our talk,” Cook said. “She needs to prepare herself to be a leader of this team at some point, so she’s got to be a good role model right now is the message.”
Well, Stivrins certainly went “beast mode” against the Nittany Lions, putting forth one of the best performances of her career in the marathon match and then following it up with another strong outing against Rutgers the following night. She was named Big ten Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.
“I think she’s one of the best middles in the country,” Cook said. “She brings an emotional energy to our side that probably makes up for Callie [Schwarzenbach] and Jazz [Sweet] and that’s what we need from her, that fire and emotional energy, whatever you want to talk about. There actually was a match where I had to ask her to tone it down a little bit, so that’s a good problem.”
Stivrins’ personality is radically differently than a lot of the other players that are or have played middle blocker at Nebraska. Cook mentioned Schwarzenbach, the freshman, as well as Briana Holman and Amber Rolfzen as examples.
“A lot of the middles are pretty quiet. Callie, Briana, Amber — do you want me to keep going?” Cook said. “Lauren is outgoing, she’s a very, very competitive athlete and works really hard. In that way she’s a little bit different than some of our middles.”
With Nebraska’s current co-captains in Maloney and Mikaela Foecke being seniors, Stivrins could be looked at to step into that leadership role as soon as next year and its something she’s talked about before.
As late as it is in the season, Cook is continuing to adjust his lineup based on what he’s seeing in practice and the specific situations that arise in the match. Sophomore Hayley Densberger and freshmen Megan Miller and Capri Davis have both bounced in and out of the lineup this season.
Davis opened the season as the second outside hitter with sophomore Lexi Sun rehabbing an injury, but once Sun was cleared she stepped into the lineup and has held down that spot ever since. Davis went from starting to not playing at all in most matches. Even so, she has continued to work and when Cook called her name in both the Penn State and Rutgers matches, she delivered with six kills on seven swings.
“I love Capri,” Cook said. “She comes in and is fearless. I think that was one of the highlights of the weekend, seeing her get a chance to come in, and it wasn’t just Rutgers — she had a couple big kills against Penn State. I just love how she comes in and gets after it. She’s just got a fearless mindset. That was really cool.”
Both Densberger and Miller played a lot at defensive specialist early int he season, but Sun joining the lineup reduced the number of rotations for the defensive specialists as Sun is playing all six rotations this season. For a while, Densberger was handling most of the opportunities that remained, but over the last few matches Cook has gone with Miller instead.
“She started putting up good numbers in practice,” Cook said about Miller’s re-emergence. “That’s where it all starts: in practice. Those guys, we stat them every day. The best numbers play.”
Densberger is still playing some primarily as a serving specialist, but Miller’s recent uptick in performance provides the Huskers with a better passing option in that spot than what Densberger had been giving and Miller put up 14 digs in back-to-back matches against Illinois and Penn State.
“I thought Megan played great against Penn State,” Cook said. “Hayley had a smaller role this weekend but still hit her serves. Those guys are really important. We need people coming in there and making a difference and that was the message for that weekend.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.