Nebraska only got to play two of its three previously scheduled matches during the Husker Invitational because of COVID-19 issues at Tulsa, but the opening weekend provided John Cook with just about everything he wanted to see from his young team.
“The weekend went well for us,” Coach John Cook said. “We got to get down and had to fight back, which is great for our team to know they can do that. This week we’ve got a lot of things to work on and get better and still try to figure out the best lineup, and three great teams to play this weekend. So it’ll be a little more challenging, playing two matches Friday and then another big one Saturday night.”
In addition to securing two wins and getting plenty of freshmen playing time in the process, Nebraska also honored Olympic gold medalist Justine Wong-Orantes, who won a national championship as Nebraska’s starting libero in 2015.
“We made history Saturday night having a gold medalist in the house,” Cook said. “That was pretty awesome to have Justine back and it was historic; it’s never happened before for Nebraska volleyball, so another great, great moment for Nebraska volleyball history.”
Following the weekend’s results, Nebraska moved up one spot in the AVCA Coaches Poll to No. 4 as Washington, the preseason No. 4, fell to Ohio State. The Buckeyes jumped from No. 11 to No. 6.
Texas remains at No. 1 with 42 first-place votes while Wisconsin (15 first-place votes) and Kentucky (seven) round out the top three. Purdue held steady at No. 8. Minnesota drooped from No. 7 to No. 10 after losing to previous No. 10 Baylor in four sets while Penn State dropped from 12 to 17 after a four-set loss to No. 24 (and now No. 16) Georgia Tech. Michigan jumped into the poll at No. 23 this week.
As for nonconference opponents, Louisville is No. 12, Utah is No. 19 and Creighton is just outside the top 25 at No. 27.
The Huskers had to play without their starting setter as Nicklin Hames continues to recover from an ankle injury she suffered during the Red-White Scrimmage. Sophomore Anni Evans and freshman Kennedi Orr split time in a 6-2 system against Colgate on Friday. Orr got the start in a 5-1 against Kansas State, but when she “hit a wall,” in Cook’s words, Nebraska turned to Evans, the walk-on out of Waverly, who led the Huskers to a come-from-behind win in set four.
“She just steadied us out, put every set on the money,” Cook said. “She took a couple risky sets, which typically when a setter comes in they’re just gonna set the easy ball. She set two great, I call high-level sets that we got nice skills on which helped keep K-State balanced. She just executed.”
Twelve different Huskers saw action over the weekend, and Cook said all 12 — and perhaps more, depending on health — could get a chance to see the court this weekend as well.
“With three matches, they’re going to get opportunities to do that,” Cook said. “Our goal is we want to play everybody, especially in these first two weekends. There’ll be opportunities for other players who haven’t played. We’d like to hopefully get Ally [Batenhorst] back and see what these guys can do. It’s great for them to be able to know that they can do that, especially for Anni to come in and do that that, that gives everybody else a lot of hope. I told you we’ve got a lot of players that can play, and we’re not afraid to play them. Anni proved it.”
Cook called Hames’ progress “good” and said that she will return to practice on Monday.
“It’s amazing when you see setters come in, how fast to heal up … We’re going full practice today if she can make it through,” Cook said. “We’ve got to start pushing her today to see if she can play this weekend. She’s chomping at the bit.
Lauren Stivrins was in street clothes next to Hames on the bench, but he said he’s hopeful that the senior co-captain will be able to begin participating at least somewhat in practice this week. Freshmen Ally Batenhorst and Ally Gray were the other two Huskers who did not play over the weekend. Gray missed the Red-White Scrimmage with a sore shoulder but Cook said she’s full-go in practice. Batenhorst, on the other hand, has been at less than 100% in practice.
“She’s been about 70%, but we’ve been holding her back,” Cook said. “It’s just one of those things that you get, it’s a nagging thing and you’ve just got to rest it, it’s the only thing you can do. So she was still in practice, just very limited in some things and hopefully that rest is going to pay off.”
Three different freshmen cracked the starting lineup during the Husker Invitational including Lexi Rodriguez who beat out a junior captain in Kenzie Knuckles and a sophomore in Keonilei Akana for the libero job. Cook always says the best passers are going to play and Rodriguez has been the bast passer in their gym “by far.”
“First of all, she served great, passed great, dug great, set great,” Cook said. “So, she played really, really high-level, consistent volleyball. We’re trying to figure out on defense — we’re very disciplined on defense, and we’re trying to decide now to kind of turn her loose a little bit and let her read because she’s so good at reading. She played at a very high level for the whole match.”
Rodriguez led the huskers with 15 digs against Colgate and 21 against Kansas State (5.14 per set) and earned co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors alongside Ohio State middle blocker Arica Davis. She also drew heavy praise from former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit.
Lexi Rodriguez has the widest range of any libero I have seen at Nebraska.
— Terry Pettit (@TerryPettit1) August 30, 2021
The Huskers will get three more opportunities to learn about themselves this weekend during the Ameritas Players Challenge at the Devaney Center. Nebraska will face Omaha and Georgia on Friday then will close out the event against Arizona State on Saturday.
Cook’s focusing on consistency, serving and little things defensively as the Huskers head into week two.
“I really like everything that we’re doing,” Cook said. “And now it’s just get consistency, continue to serve tougher. I’d like to see our serving go up a notch this week; we were good serving but not great. Otherwise, I really like everything that we’re doing. We had a couple fundamental breakdowns in our defense, which, again, revolved around freshmen, so we got to clean some of that stuff up, which we worked on and it’s just in a live situation sometimes they don’t recognize it right away, so clean some of that stuff up.
“This week we’ll have a chance to prepare a little bit better, because we’ve got all week to prepare for these teams, and so I think it’ll help our freshmen.”
First serve is schedule for 11 a.m. on Saturday against the Mavericks.
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.