In 2013, Justine Wong-Orantes made her Husker debut as a true freshman, earning the libero job after playing setter all through high school. She left Nebraska as a two-time All-American, a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a national champion and the school’s all-time digs leader.
Kenzie Maloney stepped in after Wong-Orantes graduated. After playing outside hitter in high school, she spent her first two years in Lincoln as a defensive specialist, learning from Wong-Orantes and preparing to take over at libero when her time came.
Maloney helped lead the Huskers to a national championship in her first year as the primary libero and earned All-America and All-Big Ten honors as a senior last season.
Coach John Cook said the battle for the libero job this preseason was going to be wide open, but all indications are that freshman Kenzie Knuckles has emerged as the winner. Like her predecessors, Knuckles didn’t play that role in high school; she posted big numbers as an outside hitter for her high school team that went 34-0 during her senior season.
Now she’s looking to make the transition, and unlike Nebraska’s previous Kenzie, Knuckles is getting thrown into the fire right away.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Cook said. “She went from hitter to libero. So at hitter you’re getting to take swings, you get to influence a match that way. Now it becomes much less aggressive, passive, because you’re basically just passing or digging or setting the ball. But we’ve had a lot of liberos do that: Kayla [Banwarth], Dani [Busboom Kelly], Kenzie [Maloney]; Kenzie was great hitter in high school. It is an adjustment.”
Knuckles got a head start on that adjustment by enrolling early so she could participate in the beach season and fully incorporate herself into Nebraska volleyball during the spring.
“I decided to enroll early last fall, actually,” Knuckles said. “I made the decision because I wasn’t playing club volleyball, so instead of sitting out another season I decided to come early so I could start out playing beach.”
Cook said she enrolled early because “she wants to be the next great libero at Nebraska,” and the extra experience has her well on her way towards accomplishing that goal.
“It’s helped a lot, actually, just learning how they play and how it goes, all the drills and stuff like that,” Knuckles said. “I feel like I’m kind of keeping up to speed a lot more than if I had come in during the summer and not really had a clue what I was doing yet.”
Knuckles said she still misses hitting at times, but she’s fully embraced her new role and is happy at libero, though like Cook said, it has been a difficult adjustment.
“I would say the toughest part about just playing libero is in high school, if my hitting was off I could rely on my passing or if my passing was off I could rely on my hitting,” Knuckles said. “Being a libero, you have to be on, doing the jobs that you do have on the spot, so it’s just really relying and focusing on my passing, which can be a good thing too.”
Knuckles hasn’t been alone while she’s been learning on the job, however. She has a valuable resource in assistant coach Kayla Banwarth who was a standout libero at Nebraska during her playing days.
“She’s been a really good resource,” Knuckles said. “She always has a really good example or will talk me through it, not just talk me through it but will show me with her body. That’s helped me a lot, just knowing that I can trust what she’s saying and what she’s doing.”
Knuckles said the older players on the team have also helped her to learn the ropes.
“Our captains, Nicklin [Hames] and Lauren [Stivrins], have been really good at that, just keeping up and being consistent with player energy and talking to everyone and stuff like that,” Knuckles said. “There’s also been Hayley [Densberger] that I really look up to; I’ve never played left back before so she’s really just showing me where I’m supposed to be and things I’m supposed to be doing and stuff like that.”
Her play and her approach to practice throughout the offseason has turned some heads in Nebraska’s gym.
“Kenzie is one of those people who is just a freak athlete,” Stivrins said. “She hasn’t ever played libero until she came here and she’s really embraced that role and she’s getting better each and every day. It’s really cool to see and she has such high expectations for herself, so we love to see that.”
Knuckles got her first taste as a player of what the Huskers fan base is like during the sold-out spring exhibition in McCook. She played the whole match at libero. That gym only held 1,750, however, so Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage was a completely different experience.
“I played in the spring game, so that was phenomenal, so I kind of had an idea,” Knuckles said. “I’ve been to games in the past, but I had no clue that just for the Red and White game it would be that amazing, but it was.”
Knuckles played as the libero for the Red team made up primarily of starters and finished with eight digs. She said the experience wasn’t as nerve-wracking as she expected it would be.
“I’ll give it a 7 out of 10, how about that?” Knuckles said. “I think serve receive was on it, I missed a couple serves and my defense could have been better, but I’ll give myself a 7.”
Now it’s time to do it for real. The Huskers open the 2019 season with the Husker Invitational this weekend with matches against No. 18 Creighton on Friday and UCLA 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.