“I think it’s going to be a war every day.”
That was John Cook during his media day press conference back at the start of preseason practice. That quote could apply to any position other than setter at this point, but in this case it was about the defensive specialists.
Kenzie Knuckles has started the last two season at libero. Keonilei Akana came in as a true freshman last season and earned a role off the bench at right back. Typically when key players return, it’s a safe bet that they’ll reprise their roles.
Nebraska’s 2021 recruiting class wasn’t typical, however, and the newcomers have brought some fire to the practice court. Lexi Rodriguez (called “Roddy” by her teammates) was the top-ranked libero in the 2021 class, and she got a head start by enrolling in January and participating in practice with the team during the 2020-21 season.
The 5-foot-5 defensive specialist from Sterling, Illinois, is already drawing heavy praise from her coach, including a comparison to a recent Olympic gold medal-winner.
“She’s an exceptional first contact player, passing and defense,” Cook said. “She reminds me a lot of Justine [Wong-Orantes]. They just have a sixth sense. That’s the only way I can describe it, they just have a sixth sense, like they’re there where the ball’s hit, and they just have a great touch on the ball. Justine was that way too. They’re not the best athletes, but they just have a sixth sense of what is going on.”
Rodriguez wasn’t eligible play in the spring, but she is now, and her teammates have seen a difference already in her confidence and demeanor.
“I think, when she first got here, we kind of called her MVP — that’s what coaches called her from Dream Team camp — but we all call her that, we knew how good she was,” Knuckles said. “But she was a little quiet and timid a little bit. She was making plays but she wasn’t super vocal about it. I think the jump from spring to this year is her confidence. I think she’s talking a lot more. We do a lot of competing drills where you kind of have to go at it with your teammates, and I think she’s talking a lot more and I like that out of her. I like that fiery side so I think yeah, she’s jumped a lot.”
Knuckles and Akana both had to learn on the job after playing primarily outside hitter for their high schools. Rodriguez is a different story, though she also has a background as a hitter.
“Kenzie Knuckles, it was new for her and then same with Akana, she played some ‘bero some outside; she won the state championships as an outside hitter,” Cook said. “So you want athletes, but Lexi has been a ‘bero — well she’s actually a really good hitter for her size. She used to hit until she got to be 14 and then they made her a libero.”
Though she’s fighting to hold onto her starting role, Knuckles said she’s embracing the competition and is benefitting from it.
“It’s actually been really awesome for me,” Knuckles said. “I think it helps me. I know what spot they’re in, especially Roddy as a freshman, she’s an awesome player. So is Kaylei. We all just bring different things, but I think just being able to be a role model for them and other aspects and kind of lead by my experience. At the end of the day like we’re all great players and I’m just excited for the team, to make the team as good as possible.”
Rodriguez is just one of the freshman who are pushing the returners every day in practice. That competition exists at outside hitter and middle backer as well, and though she’s still working to get back to full speed, setter Kennedi Orr has a bright future in Lincoln as well. Cook said that kind of competition didn’t exist last season at every position and he’s grateful to have it now as it means nobody can go through the motions in practice.
“It’s really awesome,” Knuckles said. ‘I think we’re all so excited to play in front of a crowd again and yeah it’s such high level this year. We have so much depth. Our freshmen are so good and they’re bringing so much. The competition is just through the roof this year and I think that’s really just motivated us and brought players to the next level, just the extra drive. I think we’re all really excited. We’re really close team this year too.”
The Huskers will get that chance to play in front of a full crowd for the first time since the 2019 season at Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage, and all three defensive specialists should get a chance to show what they can do. First serve is set for 6 p.m.
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.