Between health and roster change, spring volleyball can vary dramatically from one year to the next. This year, Nebraska has a mostly-full roster on campus, and Coach John Cook is taking advantage of that fact to put in some work this spring.
“Some springs you don’t have anybody,” Cook told Hail Varsity and the Lincoln Journal Star. “Callie [Schwarzenbach] is back so there’s one, and it’s just Lexi [Sun] and Lauren [Stivrins that are gone]. We have a pretty big group and we added three high school kids, so it’s a pretty unusual spring that we’re able to do all we can do right now.”
The Huskers have 10 returners on campus in addition to Schwarzenbach, who is training with the team while finishing the semester at Nebraska before transferring to use her extra season of eligibility to play for Tyler Hildebrand at Long Beach State. New recruits Bekka Allick, Hayden Kubik and Maisie Boesiger enrolled in January, leaving just Maggie Mendelson and Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord to join to program for the summer term.
For the first time since 2019, the Huskers got the chance to go through a complete spring season including beach volleyball, indoor training and an exhibition match, set for Saturday. Cook laid out his objectives for the spring in early April.
“Get our three freshmen used to the drills, how we train, mindset,” Cook said. “We’re reintroducing how we train. We spend this time really teaching, slowing things down because we’re not really preparing for anybody. We’re evaluating all the stuff that we — these are all stats and things we’re evaluating. We go through every morning here and we look at what did we do well, what can we do better from different skills: defense, serving, setting. Then I think the fourth thing would be developing our leadership group.”
Cook and his team got to work as soon as the beach season came to an end, giving them five weeks of training leading up to the exhibition against Kansas in Grand Island.
“We’re kind of experimenting right now, what we want to do and any changes we want to make,” Cook said. “So we’re not in game mode at all. We’re trying some new drills to work on things. Yesterday I completely changed up our practice order, how we do things. They didn’t believe me when I first told them and afterward they were like ‘Oh, that was really cool.’ We just completely changed the order of stuff, so we’re just trying new things to keep it interesting. We’re building Nebraska right now.
“We talk about a goal every day that they have. Their individual goals are on the white board down there. We talk about things we have to do to get better. In front of the team, I’m going to talk about ‘OK, here’s your role on this team, here’s what we need from you in your role,’ so everybody hears it … We’re doing stuff like that just to build things.”
The players are doing some building of their own away from the practice court as well. Cook mentioned a sleepover the team held after the beach season concluded.
“That’s the kind of stuff that you want to see happen now that they have time to do it,” Cook said. “We don’t do that in the fall. So this is more about them building their team and their relationships, which we really stress.”
Regarding the freshmen, they’re facing a very different challenge than the 2021 early-enrollees did. Kennedi Orr, Ally Batenhorst and Lexi Rodriguez joined the program in January of 2021 but could only participate in practice as the team prepared for its delayed 2020 season. They weren’t eligible until the regular 2021 season in the fall. This year’s freshmen began battling for playing time as soon as they set foot on campus.
“I think this group feels a lot more pressure because the other ones were just here in practice like ‘Oh, we can’t play,’” Cook said. “I think these guys are feeling a lot more pressure. We’re spending more energy on getting them squared away. There’ve been more 20-balls in the first two weeks here than in months, let’s put it that way.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Nicklin Hames decided to return for a fifth season, though not necessarily as the team’s starting setter. After climbing to the top of the team’s rally-scoring assists chart, she’s looking to showcase other parts of her game before transitioning into the coaching world as a graduate assistant the following year.
“We just talked about potentially creating a new role for her and potentially she could become a great libero type player,” Cook said. “But I just think Nicklin will do whatever she has to do to help this team. That would be a new challenge for her and so we’re training her to pass right now. That would be just something new for her, energize her. Beach is energizing for her. So it gives her a new view of training. I think it’s just refreshing for her. But for her, this makes a ton of sense and it’s a great opportunity. And she’s looking at the long-term picture.”
As for the leadership, Hames is a returning captain, but Cook is looking to develop other leaders as well. That includes Kenzie Knuckles, another returning captain, and Madi Kubik, who is heading into her fourth season as a starter. Kayla Caffey is also training with the team this spring while she works through her final decision regarding her future.
“[Hames] is kind of taking a little step back on that and letting other people emerge, so we’re kind of working through that,” Cook said. “I think I know how, kind of, it will end up, but I’m letting them kind of work through that and figure out their roles and stuff and how they want to do this. So we’ll see. But we’ve got those three seniors and Kayla, they’ve got a lot experience and they’ve been around a lot and they’ve been working on leadership their whole career.”
The spring is drawing to a close, but the Huskers have put in a lot of work as they prepare for a 2022 season with big expectations. The next step is the exhibition match, and we’ll have more on that leading up to the match on Saturday.
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.