The theme of the preseason for No. 2 Nebraska was competition at every position, and Coach John Cook’s main takeaway from the team’s Red-White Scrimmage was that everyone on the roster is capable of playing a role and helping the team.
Only six players can start, with smaller roles available for a few more off the bench. That gives Cook the best kind of problem a coach can have: he has more talented players than roles available.
After some early-season experimentation, Cook settled into a lineup that featured Bergen Reilly at setter, Bekka Allick and Andi Jackson at middle blocker, Lexi Rodriguez at libero and Harper Murray and Lindsay Krause at outside hitter with Laney Choboy playing for Krause in the back row. That leaves six players in reserve, but don’t call them bench players. Nebraska has a different name for them.
“It’s part of our system we put in this summer because we knew we had so many players that can play, but at some point, only six are going to start, or seven,” Cook said after Nebraska’s win over Kentucky. “So we just tried to say ‘Hey, at some point, we’re going to need you, and you’ve got to be thinking you’re going to come in and be a game-changer as opposed to come in and just play.’
“So we’ve instilled that as part of our systems. If somebody gets hurt, somebody’s having a tough night, you’ve got to be a game-changer, and I’ve got a whole bunch of them that can can do that … It is our depth and it’s also we’ve got those guys believing they can make a difference.”
The latest test of that “game-changers” concept came on Sunday when Nebraska dispatched then-No. 21 Kentucky despite being without two key players in Krause and Choboy because of injuries.
Ally Batenhorst had only played in eight sets across five matches heading into Sunday, but she got her chance to start against the Wildcats in Krause’s place and made the most of it, finishing with 12 kills on .281 hitting.
“I’m obviously a junior, so I have a lot of experience,” Batenhorst said. “I think coming off the bench, we talk a lot about game-changers and ripping off the hinges, and that’s something that I’ve really taken to heart and whenever it’s my turn, I’m going to go out there and give it all I have for the team. It was pretty smooth transition, just going out there and doing the best I can.”
Choboy’s absence created an opportunity for sophomore walk-on Maisie Boesiger as well. She served and played a couple back-row rotations in place of Batenhorst. and finished with a career-high six digs including a couple of pancakes saves and her second ace of the season.
“We have game-changers and that’s what Maisie had to do,” Murray said. “I think she did a great job and like Ally said, they’ve been preparing at practice this whole week. So I think she along with Ally and Kenna really stepped up and I’m really proud of all them just because that’s what we need on this team. Having people that can come in the game and help us win is what’s going to take us far this season.”
“Kenna” is Kennedi Orr, the junior setter who lost the preseason battle for the starting job to Reilly, the freshman. She did not play in Nebraska’s first six matches — including the Memorial Stadium match — raising questions about a potential redshirt. However, Orr made her season debut against Long Beach State on Sept. 9 in a new role: serving sub.
In that role, Orr checks in to serve and play back-row defense for one of the middle blockers for one rotation then subs back out for Rodriguez to play the last two rotations before the middle rotates back in to play in the front row.
That wasn’t necessarily the initial plan for Orr, but when Reilly cemented herself as the staring setter, Orr and the coaching staff began thinking about other ways she could help the team. After making strides with her serve in practice, Cook decided to give her a shot to see what she could do.
“We had talked about it a little bit, but it wasn’t really set in stone until the game,” Orr said last week. “So I think Coach is just really good about always keeping us ready. Every single person on the team, we don’t really have a bench, we’re more game-changers. Before every game, he’s like ‘Game-changers, you’ve got to be ready to go no matter what.’ It’s not just like ‘You’re going to be on the bench this game,’ you never know what’s going to happen.”
Orr said she’s really excited about the role, though she felt like a deer in headlights the first time she walked out to serve against the Beach. She got the serve in, however, and ended up playing 12 rallies in the match, recording five digs. She had two digs against Stanford then recorded a dig, an assist and her first ace of the season against Kentucky.
Orr spent the early part of the season reworking her serve after struggling a bit in 2022.
“I actually kind of changed my serve,” Orr said. “it’s different footwork, different arm work, so it’s completely new, I would say, but a serve is still a serve. But I also think just working on the mental aspects of serving is super important because it’s just you and the ball, so you can get in your head a little bit about that. So just changing up the routine and also changing up technically what I’m doing.”
Rodriguez spends plenty of time in practice passing Orr’s serves and said she’s noticed a difference as her fellow junior has become more comfortable with the changes.
“Her serve is really good and she’s just kind of getting after it,” Rodriguez said. “She’s trying to challenge us as passers and I think going into the game, it can be kind of hard mentally to have that role. You don’t play for 20 minutes and then you have to go in there and stick a serve, and I think she’s giving it her all. She’s going in there and she wants to make an impact, whether it’s from the service line or on defense, and she’s been doing a great job.”
Serving is the first part of her new job, but she also has to be ready to play defense if the ball comes back over the net, and she’s made a few impressive plays when the ball’s been hit into her zone.
“I love defense, I always have,” Orr said. “I grew up on a team in club and high school that defense was the number one priority, and obviously here too we’re a great defensive team. So I’ve always just kind of prioritized it and found it super fun.”
Whether it’s a former No. 1 overall recruit stepping into a serving sub role, a walk-on filling in admirably for a key starter or a blue-chip pin hitter accepting a back-up role and being ready to perform as an injury replacement, Nebraska’s bench has played a big role in the Huskers making it through the nonconference schedule without a loss and rising to No. 2 in the nation.
That’s why the team calls the reserves game-changers.