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Nebraska Cornhuskers setter Kennedi Orr sets the ball during their annual Red White scrimmage
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Conversations with Cook: Position Battles, Setter Options and Vaccination Status

August 23, 2021

Typically, John Cook likes to have his lineups set so players didn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulders after a mistake. This season is different. Cook is looking for the Huskers to play with an edge.

“I think we’ve got a lot of people that can play and so we may want to tap into that,” Cook said. “Eventually we’ll have to get to the group but I think early on, I’m very open to exploring.”

With position battles poised to continue into the season, having a nonconference slate to work through some things is a big deal for Nebraska, especially after playing a Big Ten-only schedule last season. Cook said he’s a big fan of the nonconference schedule they’ve put together, which begins with this weekend’s Husker Invitational.

“I love our nonconference schedule because when we’re at home, we’re going to get a big, huge match up at Creighton, we’ve got some big matches here at home, we’re going to go to Stanford, so that’s going to be a huge test,” Cook said. “I just like the combination of teams we’re playing and the challenge, then of course Louisville is coming here. So it’s a good mix. It’s always a struggle to create a great schedule playing in the Big Ten because we know we’re going to be playing ranked teams every week. So how hard do you go in the nonconference?

“I feel good about our schedule. I think we can build toward the Big Ten and I think that’s what it’s all about is preparing to start playing in the Big Ten.”

During Saturday’s scrimmage, Kenzie Knuckles—the starting libero for the last two years—was not suited up in the black libero jersey. Freshman Lexi Rodriguez played libero for the Red team while sophomore Keonilei Akana donned the black jersey for the White. Knuckles played for the White team in the back row alongside Akana and took 10 swings, recording three kills and five errors.

“Kenzie’s a great hitter,” Cook said. “She can get on it really good, she moves it around. Because she’s shorter she hits it flat so she’s going to get a lot of tools off the block. It’s harder to block because she’s smaller. We’re seeing if we can develop that as a possibility. I think middle back’s a more natural position for her than left back. We want to have somebody be able to attack out of the back row there. She’s all about it, loves it. And remember, she hit her whole life, so this is nothing new for her. She almost touched 10 feet; she’s 9-11.5 in vertical testing, so she’s playing close to our outside hitters height-wise.”

Cook said this role provides more lineup flexibility and gives Knuckles a chance to get on the court even if she isn’t the starting libero.

“That’s what we went with and sold her on it and she loves it,” Cook said. “She had 20 digs as a middle back, which is pretty darn good. The way she moves and plays the game, she’s more built to be a middle back player then a left back player. So it’s just how she moves, how she’s built, she’s very quick-twitch. She’s a centerfielder, she’s not a third baseman. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

The one position that seemed set in stone was setter, but with Nicklin Hames’ ankle injury likely to keep her out of action this weekend Cook has another decision on his hands. Does he start freshman Kennedi Orr, the No. 1 2021 recruit in the country according to PrepVolleyball.com who is coming off a torn ACL, or second-year walk-on Anni Evans? Orr enrolled in January and is where she needs to be from a mental standpoint, but she’s still playing a bit of catch-up on the court.

“She’s a little bit behind, but she’s really talented, and she’s working her way into it because she hasn’t played in a year,” Cook said. “Of course, our gym’s moving pretty fast and the speed of the game is really fast in there. But she’s getting better every week, so that’s been good. She’s worked really hard, but you can only go set to a target so much; you’ve got to get in there when everything’s going, and that’s the next big adjustment, the speed.”

There’s a chance Husker fans could end up seeing both setters this weekend as well as Cook is considering using a 6-2.

“We’re playing three matches in 36 hours,” Cook said. “that’s one of the question marks I have: can she do that if she was setting a 5-1? I don’t know. We don’t know. So that’s what I’ve got to think about.”

One thing every athletic program in the Big Ten will have to continue to think about is the ongoing pandemic as the conference announced on Monday that forfeits will result if a team is unable to compete because of COVID-19 issues. Cook said the team is 100% vaccinated but will continue to take precautions.

“I just know we’re going to continue to mask up until the county health tells us things are quieted down,” Cook said. “We just found out today if we have a COVID deal, forfeit. You lose and it gives other teams an easy win, so we’ve got to be careful with that. But we just have to trust people have their best interests and we want to be as protective as we can.”

Volunteer assistant Kelly Hunter was absent from Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage after coming in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Cook said he’s hoping she’ll be back with the team by Wednesday.

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