Volleyball season for the Huskers officially begins on Friday as Nebraska is set to travel to Gainesville for this year’s VERT Challenge, an annual event that includes four of the top programs in the country in Nebraska, Texas, Florida and Oregon.
This year’s event will pit the Huskers against the Ducks on Friday and the host Gators on Saturday.
Coach John Cook said the team is in a good place heading into the season opener.
“We’ve been training great, I can tell you that,” Cook said. “When we actually play a real match we’ll have to find out. We’ve been training great. The intensity’s been really good. Kadie and Amber [Rolfzen] were in here today which raises the level. I’ve been really, really pleased with how we’ve been training.”
Cook has not yet made any final decisions about who will be available and what the lineup will look like, but the Huskers will probably be without All-American senior setter Kelly Hunter who is still rehabbing from an offseason injury.
Cook said she participated for about two-thirds of Wednesday’s three-hour practice, but he wants to be cautious rather than risking re-injury.
“We’re gradually building her up,” Cook said. “This is probably the most she’s done today. We’re going to continue to get her stronger.”
Regardless of what Hunter’s status will be, redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton will make her debut in Gainesville. As soon as Hunter suffered the injury, Atherton knew there was going to be a good chance that her number would be called.
“’Here’s the keys to the car. You’re driving. We’re all along for the ride,’” Cook said he told Atherton.
Atherton has been preparing for this opportunity for a year-and-a-half as she graduated from high school and enrolled at Nebraska early, and she said her teammates have helped her get ready to play.
“I think coming early was really helpful,” Atherton said. “Just the teammates that I have are super supportive … We all have the ultimate trust that gets us through a lot of things.”
Cook said the team will keep things a little simpler than it would otherwise with Atherton running the show, but the redshirt freshman brings her own strengths to the floor.
“She’s extremely fast and can really run down balls; that’s her strength,” Cook said.
As for a weakness, Cook said it is consistency, something most young setters struggle with. However, she is going up against some stiff competition in practice and that is helping her along in that area.
“Great setters set the same ball, the same consistency, so the hitters can almost hit blindfolded,” Cook said. “That’s what Kelly Hunter can do; those guys know where the ball’s going to be. Hunter’s got to learn to be a little more consistent. She’s in a situation where when she makes mistakes the other team makes her pay so that’s really good, really good learning going on in our gym right now. If she doesn’t set a great tempo ball in a good location, it’s going to get blocked or dug, and that’s what we want in our gym.”
Cook said he has the lineup figured out for the most part with Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins at middle blocker, Mikaela Foecke and Annika Albrecht at two outside hitter spots, Kenzie Maloney at libero and Atherton at setter. The biggest decision still to come is who will play right side hitter.
Stivrins is the other redshirt freshman on the team and Cook has already expressed a great deal of confidence in the former top-10 recruit.
“I’m excited for her because she’s been waiting for this for a year and she’s worked really hard,” Cook said. “I’m super fired up to see her unleash a little bit. I know she’s been really patient and waited. We may have to calm her down a little bit, but she has worked really hard to put herself in position to be a premier middle blocker.”
Cook said he has not determined yet which of the five freshmen will redshirt this season. He said he would prefer to redshirt middle blocker Chesney McClellan with Stivrins and Holman starting and former basketball player Allie Havers providing depth as a senior.
However, he did mention that defensive specialist Hayley Densberger, a native of Malcolm, Nebraska, will likely be in the serving rotation this season.
The Huskers still have a lot to determine with so many newcomers but they won’t get a chance to ease into the season with two top-20 opponents on deck.
“I think getting through the Red/White got a lot of nerves out so now I think we’ll go compete really hard,” Cook said. “We’re going to have to play really well to be successful against both Oregon and Florida, and they know that. I think the competition is going to bring out the best in us and that’s how were going to approach it, that we’re going to go to another level. But they’ve certainly been training at a very high level and they should feel confident going down there.”
Both games are set to start at 4 p.m., with Nebraska taking on the preseason No. 18 Ducks on Friday on ESPN3 and the preseason No. 12 Gators on Saturday on the SEC Network.