It’s not often you’ll find a player who has started in a national championship match sitting on a team’s bench, but that happens to be the case with Nebraska this season. In fact, Coach John Cook has two national champion starters sitting on his bench most games.
The Huskers returned their entire 2019 starting lineup, but additions from outside the program plus interior improvement have given Cook more options to play with this season.
Lauren Stivrins, Nicklin Hames, Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik have all started every set this season and Kenzie Knuckle is entrenched as the libero, but beyond that group Cook has switched up his starters and rotations and gone deep into his bench mid-match to get more players involved. Through six matches, 13 of Nebraska’s 14 active players have seen the court.
“I think that you can put any single one of our players at their position and they would be just fine,” Stivrins said. “This team is so talented and there are days when the B-side of the team is kicking our butts. To see that type of talent all around is something very special. I think it’s really cool that we have that sort of flexibility.”
Freshman Keonilei Akana has earned the right back spot that Megan Miller played last year. Hayley Densberger, Anni Evans and Emma Gabel have all played smaller roles off the bench.
The two key swing spots so far have been the second middle blocker spot and the opposite hitter position.
Callie Schwarzenbach started the last two seasons, but it’s been Missouri transfer Kayla Caffey in the starting lineup for four of Nebraska’s six matches. Caffey hit over .400 as a Tiger last season and provides more of a dynamic offensive threat than Schwarzenbach.
“She has a very fast arm, she can hit it all directions in different body positions, so that’s a great arm,” Cook said last week. “Like a baseball pitcher’s got a great arm, she’s got every pitch there is and can do it well.”
Cook hasn’t pushed Caffey too hard, however, and he’s looked for opportunities to keep Schwarzenbach involved. She started the second match against both Indiana and Rutgers, and she played off the bench in one set against Maryland as well. She has just nine kills and five errors on 23 attempts (.174 hitting), but she also has 13 blocks (four solo) in just eight sets, a team-leading 1.63 blocks per set.
“Everybody’s got strengths and weaknesses among that group,” Cook said. “We want to try to highlight the strengths depending on who we’re playing and what we need, and then we can adjust. We’ve got some depth, we can have people play and move people in and out and we feel pretty comfortable doing it. Sometimes as a coach you don’t want many decisions, you want them just to play and not worry about it, but also it’s nice to be able to have some match-up options. If we need offense, Kayla’s instant offense, and if we need blocking, Callie’s instant blocking.”
At opposite hitter, Jazz Sweet has played a key role for Nebraska since she arrived on campus in 2017. Despite averaging 2.77 kills per set on .278 hitting as a junior, she lost her starting spot to a younger player in sophomore Riley Zuhn.
Zuhn recorded seven kills and seven errors on 26 attempt in 25 matches as a freshman, playing more middle blocker than pin hitter. But Cook saw enough from the 6-foot-5 Colorado native to give her a chance to start on the right side. She’s still coming into her own offensively, averaging 2.1 kills per set on .223 hitting, but Cook likes what she provides defensively.
Sweet saw limited action through the first few weeks, playing in just three sets as a front-row blocking substitute. In the second match against Rutgers, however, with Zuhn struggling Cook gave Sweet her most extensive playing time of the season and she responded with eight kills on .429 hitting, three digs and two block assists.
“I thought she came in and did a really nice job,” Cook said. “She looked really confident and took some really good swings. That’s what we want from her and we’ll see how this week goes in practice . Those guys are competing every week.”
Stivrins said they both have different approaches to the game as well, and their personalities shape their distinct on-court presences.
“I think that they’re both supremely talented players, obviously, but I think they do have two different styles of playing,” Stivrins said. “I think that Riley is really fun to play next to and she’s got all this energy and she’s a huge block and she’s super fun to play next to whereas Jazz is very composed and tactical in her style of play, and still a lot of fun to play with. I think both of them, you can’t go wrong. Both very talented volleyball players.”
Cook has a mix of proven, veteran options and younger players with upside, and he plans to continue to take advantage of all of the depth on this year’s roster, The back-to-back nature of the schedule has made that kind of depth even more valuable than normal.
“We’ve got a couple different ways we can go about it and I think playing back-to-back, same team, it’s nice to have those options,” Cook said. “That’s what we’ve been training.”
Practice performance and specific match-ups will continue to determine who rounds out Nebraska’s lineup, but for a team as talented and experienced as Nebraska, there are no bad options.
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.