The shortest offseason in Nebraska volleyball history is nearing its end. With the roster finally set including the return of two super seniors in Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins, official practice begins on Monday.
“We’re excited about the season,” Coach John Cook said. “I think the Big Ten is going to be really, really tough. I think this is going to be the strongest volleyball season ever because so many seniors are returning. I look across the board and really the one program that lost the most is Kentucky who won the national championship. Otherwise everybody’s kind of returning everybody — freshmen and seniors. We’ve tried to mentally prepare our team over the summer for the grind and the level of competition we’re going to see and what we did last year was not good enough, and it’s going to have to be better. So we’ve identified those areas, we’ve been working on them over the summer.”
The Huskers will get two weeks of practice leading up to the Red-White Scrimmage, then one more week before the season-opener against Tulsa at the Devaney Center on Aug. 27. Nebraska is bringing a lot back, but Cook also signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country with six freshmen who are looking to play right away.
“You may see a lot of different lineups this year trying to figure out what’s our best,” Cook said. “Last year we kind of knew; there weren’t a whole lot of options. This year we’e got to figure out who’s going to play opposite the setter and who’s going to be on the court. The thing I’m going to tell them today when we meet is pretty much there are no given starting positions. You guys are all going to have to earn it. Like we have in our locker room, ‘Everything is earned, nothing is given.’
“We’re going to make them earn their playing time and their starting position. I don’t care if they’re a freshman, senior, fifth-year senior, super senior, whatever the heck they call them; people are going to have to earn their way on this team. We’ve got 16 players that can all play.”
Stivrins announced she intends to play this season, but she’s still working her way back from offseason back surgery and there is no timetable for her return to the court.
“Lauren is trying to get back,” Cook said. “She won’t be ready right away. She’s going to have to slowly work her way back into things but I think mentally, she’s feeling good that she’s making great progress, so we’re excited about that.”
Cook also announced that third-year outside hitter Riley Zuhn has taken a medical hardship and will be retiring from volleyball. She will not be on the team any longer, but she plans to stay at Nebraska to finish her master’s degree. Zuhn was the primary starter at opposite hitter as a sophomore last season but saw her season cut short by injury.
“She just had so many things that were going wrong physically trying to play at this level,” Cook said. “It wasn’t worth it any more. Her body just couldn’t take the level of training at this level. That’s the great thing about Nebraska: she gets to finish her master’s here. It’s a win-win for her. It’s going to be really hard for her not be with the team, but she lives with three of them so she’ll still be a part of it and be around it was the wisest decision for her longterm.”
Sophomore defensive specialist Emma Gabel, a walk-on from Lincoln Pius X, is also not with the team any longer.
With Jazz Sweet opining against using her extra season of eligibility and Zuhn retiring, the opposite hitter position is wide open. Cook mentioned three candidates for the job: Sun, Lindsay Krause and Whitney Lauenstein. Sun has started on the left side since she arrived in Lincoln while the other two are true freshmen.
The returning Huskers had a quick turnaround from last season with it taking place in the spring, but Cook said he isn’t the least bit worried about any kind of burnout.
“We’re not happy with how the season ended and how we played last year,” Cook said. “We felt like we got kind of a season robbed from us in regards to no fans, so many cancellations, the way we played at the end. Being in Omaha, it was like you get all dressed up to go to the party and it was a bummer party, there’s not much of a party. I think our players are very, very motivated and hungry for this season so I’m not very worried about it at all. I just know how the coaches feel; we can’t wait and are looking forward to some great competition.”
The Red-White Scrimmage will be the first home Nebraska volleyball “match” open to the public since the 2019 season. Cook said the Huskers are excited to play in front of their fans again, but he’s also a little wary with COVID-19 numbers on the rise again.
“I’m a little nervous; I hope Garth [Brooks] goes well,” Cook said. “But we’ll be the first test with Red-White. I’m still a little concerned with everything but I think this place is going to erupt if we have a full house because it’s going to be almost two years of not being able to be in here. I know our student section already sold out way back at the beginning of the summer. That’s a good barometer of how people’s enthusiasm is for volleyball.”
Other news and notes:
>> Nicklin Hames and Kayla Caffey are both listed as seniors on Nebraska’s rosters. Although they have the opportunity to return for another season because of the pandemic, both said they’re approaching this season as if it will be their last and then will re-evaluate if necessary after the season.
>> Freshman setter Kennedi Orr, who enrolled in the spring, will practice for the first time on Monday after suffering a torn ACL during her senior season.
>> Cook said he hasn’t placed any kind of ground rules for his players regarding NIL opportunities.
>> Regarding the defensive specialist positions, Cook said he thinks “it’s going to be a war every day.” Kenzie Knuckles is a two-year starter at libero and Keonilei Akana played right away as a freshman at defensive specialist last year, but Lexi Rodriguez was the top-ranked libero in the 2021 class as well and was another early-enrollee.
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.