One day before Nebraska’s season opener, the only lineup news Coach John Cook was ready to commit to publicly was that senior setter Nicklin Hames would not be playing this weekend, though he did offer one hint.
“We’ve got a lot of players that can play,” Cook said after Thursday’s practice. “We statted the crap out of them and it’s all very even. So, probably I’ll lean toward more experience over less experience but we’ve got to throw some of those freshmen in the fire and see what they can do.”
Cook said Kenzie Knuckles has changed positions to middle back, narrowing the libero options to freshman Lexi Rodriguez and sophomore Keonilei Akana.
Five outside hitters are competing for three spots, and Cook had freshmen Lindsay Krause and Whitney Lauenstein play most of the points at opposite hitter in the Red-White Scrimmage.
At middle blocker, Cook has four options to pick from even without Lauren Stivrins. Freshman Rylee Gray participated in practice on Thursday after sitting out Saturday’s scrimmage with a sore shoulder.
“We’ve just been been rotating everybody,” Cook said. “We’re prepared to play two different lineups. So, I’ll see how they look in the eyes tomorrow, but they’re they’re prepared to play a couple different lineups and prepared to play a 5-1 and a 6-2. So, we’ve got the whole thing, prepared for this weekend.”
Hames’ ankle injury means Cook has a decision to make at setter this weekend as well: walk-on sophomore Anni Evans, freshman Kennedi Orr or both? Cook said either one is fully capable of playing in both 5-1 (one setter plays all the way around) and a 6-2 (two setters split the duties).
“Anni has been been in our program for a year,” Cook said. “She’s really consistent. Kennedi is less experienced in our program but Kennedi’s much more physical, and can play bigger at the net and does some pretty impressive things at the net. I think our team’s comfortable with either one of them so I’m not worried about that at all.”
Though Hames won’t be on the court on Friday, she’s done what she can to prepare Evans and Orr for the moment this week on and off the practice court.
“She’s the best,” Evans said. “She has great advice always, and she just really pumps us up. Even when we’re down, we’re having a tough time learning a new thing she always gives us advice like, ‘Hey, I see this,’ and she kind of has a coach’s point of view right now. So it’s really nice for her to be there talking to us.”
PrepVolleyball.com ranked Orr as the top recruit in the 2021 class. She’s the first Nebraska setter listed at 6-foot since Sydney Anderson in 2010 and has all the physical tools needed to be a great setter, even if eh’s only been practicing close to full-go for a few weeks.
“She’s great,” Evans said. “I think we really learned from each other. She has a lot of power in her sets. She knows how to get to the ball and she is really deceptive. Honestly, she’s just a great setter. There’s really nothing she can’t do with the ball.”
Orr made her debut in front of Nebraska fans at the Red-White Scrimmage and finished with 25 assists, three blocks and a kill while splitting time with Evans on the White team and stepping in for Hames on the Red team after the captain injured her ankle.
“She’s got a gift with her hands what she can do and she has big hands and can just be in different positions and just set it,” Cook said. “She can just fling the ball around very easily and she can be in all kinds of different positions. Typically you see men’s setters will do that; if we threw Tyler out there or — the guys can really do that stuff. She reminds me a little bit of how guys set and what they’re able to do and really fling the ball around. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to recruit her because I can’t remember the last time I saw a setter that could do that in girls’ volleyball.”
With a year in the program under her belt already, Evans also brings her own strengths to the table.
“Anni is just a super level-headed setter and that’s so important as a setter,” Orr said. “She’s so consistent. We talk about setters being leaders a lot on the court so if you have a setter that’s kind of all over the place that’s really hard to play with and hard to deal with. But Anni just does such a great job of taking control of a team, energy-wise and just being consistent with their sets.”
Cook will have a few more hours to deliberate his lineup choices with the cancellation of the opener against Tulsa, but playing two matches instead of three also gives him less time to experiment.
“It creates a little more of a sense of urgency,” Cook said. “We’ve got to dial it in. I just don’t feel like we have as much time to kind of mess around, so that hurts. Colgate will have a big advantage already having played a match in the morning. We got through Red-White, now we’ve got to get through playing another team. But, it’s OK. It’s just the way it is. We’re gonna have to adjust and this probably isn’t the last time we’ll have to this year.”
Nebraska opens the season against Colgate at the Devaney Center on Friday at 6:30 p.m. CT. The match will be available to stream on Big Ten Network+.
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.