Nebraska returned its entire starting lineup from last season, but that wasn’t the group Coach John Cook sent out there for the season-opener at Indiana.
One of the new faces in the lineup was Riley Zuhn, a 6-foot-5 sophomore from Fort Collins, Colorado, who logged her first two starts over the weekend.
“I actually didn’t find out until just before the game, so that was short notice, but I was really excited because I’ve been training for that for the past year,” Zuhn said. “So I was excited for it, just mentally getting ready to compete again. We haven’t competed for 13 months, so I was just excited to get back out there.”
Though Cook didn’t tell her she was going to start beforehand, Zuhn said she prepared all week as if she was going to start just in case. That paid off when she supplanted senior and three-year starter Jazz Sweet as the starting opposite hitter on Friday, totaling 14 kills and five errors on 31 attempts (.290 hitting) in two three-set matches against Indiana. Zuhn didn’t technically start in either match, since she isn’t playing six rotations and Nebraska started in a rotation that included freshman defensive specialist Keonilei Akana taking her place in the back row, but for all intents and purposes she was the starter at that position.
Zuhn arrived at Nebraska as an outside hitter, but with a lack of depth in the middle last season she split her time between the two positions. She played in 25 sets across 17 matches, recording seven kills and seven errors on 26 attempts plus six block assists and three digs. Now she’s settling in at another new position.
“It was kind of tough to bounce around between so many positions last year, but I was just trying to do whatever the team needed me to do that day,” Zuhn said. “If the team needs me to play right side this year, then I’m going to play right side. Whatever the team needs, that’s what I’ll do. That’s kind of the mindset that I’ve tried to have. We always talk about ‘we over me,’ and so just putting the team first. Whatever spot they want me at, that’s what I’ll play.”
Zuhn’s first start saw her line up across from Breana Edwards, Indiana’s leading attack who averaged 3.47 kills per set last season. Edwards finished with two kills and eight errors on 21 attempts in that match.
“That was awesome,” Zuhn said. “That was one of my big goals. Because we didn’t know a ton about Indiana team, so she was one of the players that we did do a little bit of scouting on. She was my main focus so I’m glad that I was able to kind of shut her down early because I think that helped us a lot, keeping her from scoring on us a ton.”
Though she was excited to play, she was also a bit nervous heading into the match like most players are heading into their first start. Zuhn said the success she had both on offense and defense was a confidence booster. That being said, what she’s faced in practice every day for the last 20 months prepared her for what she experienced against the Hoosiers.
“I think we do a great job kind of imitating a match atmosphere in practice,” Zuhn said. “We have really high-level volleyball that we’re playing in practice and we’re competing really hard day in and day out. For us, the matches were awesome to actually get out there and compete against another team and not just compete against our own teammates. So in that respect it was awesome, but I don’t think it was that different for us because I think we do a great job of keeping it high level in practice and competing really hard every day.”
Cook isn’t tying himself to any one lineup this season; Zuhn isn’t guaranteed to start every match at opposite hitter, and with the challenges this season will present it’s possible they could slide her back to the left side at some point.
“Riley, last year we were moving her all over the place and now she’s settled in at a position and we’re giving her opportunities to perform,” Cook said. “She’s been playing great in practice, so competition is good. We only have four outside hitters, so she’s got to be able to play both left and right. With Jazz, it’s hard for her to play as a lefty on the left. It’s been nice to see Riley develop. She’s worked really hard. She made huge gains in the offseason with our Husker Power; she was one of our most improved players in Husker Power. We’ve got to continue to see what she can do and develop her.”
Sweet still has plenty of opportunities to earn that spot back as Cook said it’s going to be a competition between all four outside hitters every day in practice. However, Zuhn certainly made a good impression in her first start and the Huskers appear to be in good hands no matter who is lined up on the right side.