We’re inching closer and closer to what will be a volleyball season unlike anything we’ve seen. While we still don’t know exactly what the schedule will look like, we do know it won’t include any nonconference matches as the Big Ten canceled those for all fall sports last week.
If the Big Ten is able to have a volleyball season this year, coaches are going to have to be ready to adjust to whatever the world throws at them. The threat of an injury to a key player is a constant worry in every sport, and now on top of that there is a highly contagious virus spreading across the country.
The Basketball Tournament, which wraps up on Tuesday with its championship game on ESPN, is the first large-scale contact sport in the United States since the national shut-down began back in march. A few teams were disqualified with positive COVID-19 tests, but once the tournament began things have been pretty smooth. TBT is playin in a bubble in Columbus, Ohio, however; college sports will not be played in a bubble.
Most high-major college sports programs have brought back their student-athletes and have been using extensive testing programs and protocols to prevent a player who has caught the coronavirus from spreading it to the rest of their teammates. If a player’s test gets flagged during the season, or if that player comes into contact with someone who has tested positive, he or she will have to self-isolate away from the team until getting cleared.
With that in mind, Coach John Cook told Hail Varsity he thinks depth could be even more important this season that it normally is.
“We don’t know, if somebody tests they’re going to be out for a while,” Cook said. “I think it’s really important every year, but this year it could be magnified even more. We always try to build depth and have a lot of players ready to play. We’ll continue to do that and see how it goes. Also with the Big Ten schedule, there’s going to be some really tough turnarounds with that schedule and some really tough back-to-back travel … I’m just already mentally preparing we’re going to have to use a lot of players to keep people fresh.”
Nebraska has been a little shallow at certain positions the last couple of years. Cook is hoping the 2020 roster will have the kind of balance and depth the Huskers will need
“We always try to build a balanced roster, but again, volleyball with only 12 scholarships, it’s so tight,” Cook said. “You look at liberos; it’s hard to even have a scrimmage. That’s why you have to build some depth through your walk-on program and have those guys develop like the Sydney Townsends and the Anni Albrechts and the Hayley Densbergers. Those guys develop and help you … We feel like we have pretty good balance and some experience that we can rely on.”
Including the walk-ons, Nebraska will have three setters, four middle blockers, five outside hitters and four defensive specialists this season.
Losing a setter is like losing a quarterback in football; more than any other position it would dramatically affect the way a team plays. However, Nicole Drewnick has a full year in the program under her belt and made several appearances in a specialty role, giving her a chance to get her feet wet. If Nicklin Hames has to miss time for any reason, Nebraska will be in a better place to survive that loss than it was a season ago. Anni Evans, the freshman walk-on from Waverly, will give the team another practice body as well.
Cook typically only plays two middle blockers in a match and now Nebraska has three viable options to pair with All-American Lauren Stivrins; the Huskers are probably deeper in the middle than anywhere else thanks to the offseason additions of freshman Kalynn Meyer and Missouri transfer Kayla Caffey.
Cook is high on sophomore Riley Zuhn; he thought she might have had a chance to help the team last season if they could have found a role for her, but with Lexi Sun, Madi Kubik and Jazz Sweet locking up those starting roles it didn’t happen. Now she has a season of training behind her and will be allowed to focus exclusively on outside hitter after working some as a middle blocker as a freshman. Walk-on freshman Abby Johnson adds more depth.
Finally, in the back row, the Huskers have their libero in sophomore Kenzie Knuckles, but the defensive specialist group took a hit when Megan Miller decided to transfer to Northwestern. The Huskers filled that void by bringing in Keonilei Akana, a late addition to the 2020 recruiting class after she decommitted from USC. Cook is also hoping for a Sydney Townsend-esque leap from Hayley Densberger heading into her senior season. Emma Gabel, the walk-on from Lincoln Pius X who missed all of last season while recovering from a torn ACL, also impressed Cook with what she did during the beach season and workouts before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.
No team can withstand a widespread outbreak on a team, but with COVID-19 lurking, if the season goes on teams will have to prepare to be without key players, either fro short-term or extended periods of time. With depth at every position, Nebraska might be in as good a spot as a team can be in to navigate this unique season.