“It’s been 510 days since the smell of Valentino’s for me,” Coach John Cook said at the podium on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium on Monday. “Honored to be here.”
And with that, Cook’s first in-person Monday press conference since the 2019 season began.
The most pressing topic was the status of senior setter Nicklin hames, who left Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage with an injury suffered during the fourth set of the 2-2 tie.
“The Phoenix will rise, nothing torn, nothing broken, so that’s good news,” Cook said during his opening statement.
Hames went up for a kill and landed awkwardly, hurting her ankle. After a time, a couple members of the support staff helped her back to the training room.
“That was a freak play, I’ve never seen that before,” Cook said. “She got clipped in the air and it threw her off and she came down. She hasn’t gotten hurt in four years here, so tough deal. But they’re young, so they heal fast.”
Though the prognosis is good, Cook said he doesn’t think Hames will be ready to play this weekend as the Huskers open the 2021 season with the Husker Invitational.
“It just matters how fast the swelling gets out, how she can build her strength back up,” Cook said. “The good thing is Nicklin doesn’t jump that high; high-fliers, it takes them a littler longer sometimes.”
In a strange twist of fate, Hames’ younger sister, Kayleigh Hames, also sprained her right ankle during Pepperdine’s exhibition on Saturday.
Cook said he had not yet determined who would start or what system Nebraska would run with Hames sidelined. Freshman Kennedi Orr, who is coming off a torn ACL that ended her senior season, and Anni Evans are the other two setters on the roster.
Setter isn’t the only position with uncertainty. The competition for playing time across the boards will continue into and through his weekend’s matches as Cook searches for his best lineup.
“We’re excited to play,” Cook said. “The theme this week, which we’ve been working on all summer, is this team’s got to play with an edge. So I’m going to be looking this weekend to find six players that want to play with an edge. What does that mean? That means we’re going to come out and go point by point, max it out every point. We’re not working into games, we’re not working into points, we’re not taking plays off. So that’s going to be a theme that we’re looking for this week and this weekend.”
There usually isn’t this much uncertainty surrounding a preseason top-five team that returns six starters, but this group of freshmen didn’t come to Lincoln to sit and watch.
“Usually your freshmen, you’re just hoping you don’t have to play them,” Cook said. “Occasionally, there’s a freshman that comes in that’s ready to go. But all these guys — and Rylee Gray was doing really well too until she hurt her shoulder —this group can play, and so it makes for an interesting dynamic. I think it makes our team better and it’s pushing our other players maybe to get a little more out of their comfort zone, which is is great. I don’t have to do it as much.”
Despite the fierce competition not he practice court, Cook said the team is really close, and he credited Lexi Sun and Kenzie Knuckles in particular for reaching out to the freshmen and making them feel welcome.
Cook said the best servers and passers will play. Serving is one area where freshman outside hitter Lindsay Krause has a leg up on her classmates, and Cook said after Saturday’s scrimmage that she had dominated in practice leading up to the match.
“She was our leading hitter and efficiency-wise, blocking-wise, serving-wise, she was our best server for the week,” Cook said. “So a lot of categories she did really well. Now, she didn’t do so well Saturday night, but I know how she’s wired. She probably didn’t sleep very good Saturday night, so she’s gonna come back with a vengeance, I think, and she’s, she’s really focused, determined. That’s how you win four state championships and that’s not easy to do. She’s played at a really high level.”
Krause recorded 12 kills but also had nine errors on Saturday, hitting .077. Fellow freshman outside hitter Ally Batenhorst got off to a fast start with eight kills in the first set but slowed down a bit from there, finishing with 12 kills on .200 hitting and 12 digs.
“She moves really well, she’s got great vision, she’s really coachable,” Cook said about Batenhorst. “She can do all the skills really well and she’s tall, which helps. You just watch her move, for somebody that’s 6-4 she moves really, really well. If she can get low to the floor it’s going to allow her to be a good good defensive player.”
Cook said all five outside hitters are six-rotation players, though some are ahead of others in that regard at this point.
The Huskers will open the season on Friday at 11 a.m. as they host Tulsa in their first match of the Husker Invitational at the Devaney Center. Nebraska will return to the court Friday night for a 6:30 CT start against Colgate and then will close out the invitational on Saturday at 4 p.m. against Kansas State.
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.