Nebraska may not have had any seniors on the 2019 roster, but offseason attrition meant Coach John Cook and his staff still had some work to do this spring to replenish the team’s depth.
The biggest hole to fill was at defensive specialist after Megan Miller’s decision to transfer to Northwestern, and the Huskers locked in one one player in particular to fill that void: Keonilei Akana.
The Hawaii native originally signed with USC but asked for and received her release in March after a coaching change. With assistant coach and native Hawaiian Jaylen Reyes leading the way, Nebraska made her a priority.
“It all started happening right around the first big tournament in February,” Cook told Hail Varsity. “Through Jaylen’s connections in Hawaii, we were told that she was going to leave USC because of the coaching changes, they hadn’t hired a coach yet and that thing was dragging on, she was getting nervous. We just caught wind along with several other people and started recruiting her.”
Akana, who the Husker coaches simply call “K,” announced her commitment to Nebraska on April 3.
“I think Jaylen’s connection with her and Hawaii, and also her mom played volleyball at Hawaii with Tony Tuioti’s wife, so K already has family here,” Cook said. “There just were a lot of connections here. K knows about us because her sister played for Hawaii last year and we played Hawaii in the tournament. So there just were a lot of different connections that kind of added up. We knew about her before and of course we were able to watch her in Kansas City.”
Assistant coach Kelly Hunter called her “scrappy” based on the little bit she got to see of her at the club volleyball tournament in Kansas City before everything shut down. Cook called her a “big-time get” in Nebraska’s release after she signed her letter of intent.
“She was the Honolulu player of the year, she hit even though she was smaller,” Cook said. “Typically a lot of our liberos were hitters or setters. So she’s a hitter. But Hawaiians have a great feel for the game, they’ve played it their whole lives. We love going to Hawaii, and there’s a reason we want to go there every year. I think two programs that really respect and honor volleyball are Nebraska and Hawaii, so she has that respect and appreciation for Nebraska volleyball because she’s grown up around it in Hawaii.
“Normally somebody like her would go to Hawaii, her sister’s at Hawaii, but sometimes — and Jaylen was in this boat — sometimes the Hawaiians grow up in Hawaii their whole lives and they want to go experience something outside of Hawaii. She’s had that goal for quite a while. She committed really early to USC, so she wanted to get out and go to the mainland. That opened the door for us.”
Akana led her high school, Kamehameha Kapalama, to a state championship as a senior, though she did it as an outside hitter. At 5-foot-9, she’ll play defensive specialist at Nebraska, and she played that position for her club team this spring as well. Hunter said it can be difficult to evaluate liberos, but Nebraska got a great look at Akana in Kansas City.
“Their touch, their ball control, how they see the game, how they move,” Cook said. “The fortunate thing at Kansas City is there was a lot of really good volleyball. It was really high-level volleyball, so she got a lot of action. Of course we looked at video tapes from her high school and she was getting 30 kills a game and all that stuff. So we’ve got a pretty good feel for her. But those are some the things we look at with liberos. It’s a hard position to recruit.”
Converting high school hitters into defensive specialists is common for Nebraska and Cook knows what traits he’s looking for in order to project players into his system. Passing is the biggest key.
“How’s their platform, can they pass, can they ball-handle?” Cook said. “That’s the whole key. It doesn’t matter what size you are, what position you play, that’s what we’re looking for. But typically smaller outside hitters have to learn how to be volleyball players and have great touch, because that’s the only way they can survive. They can’t be out of system all the time, so they’ve learned to appreciate the importance of controlling the ball.”
Even with the kind of savvy it takes to excel as an undersized hitter, the transition to playing in the back row full-time can be difficult, especially at Nebraska where serve, pass and defense are the foundations of the program.
“I think it’s harder than it seems or looks,” Cook said. “You go from trying to kill the ball to trying to cushion the ball and slow it down. For a hitter to go to libero the mindset is a big adjustment. It would be like in baseball, if a guy throws 100 miles an hour and then you ask him to throw a change-up and a curve ball and keep it under 70. So it’s a mindset change. You go from attacking to you’re actually becoming a passive type player.”
Kenzie Knuckles made that transition last year, from outside hitter in high school to starting libero as a true freshman, and now Akana will do the same once she arrives in Lincoln.
“We are expecting her to come in and compete for playing time in the libero/defensive specialist position from day one,” Cook said in her signing day release. “I’ve always had an affection for Hawaii and the culture there. I'm excited for Keonilei to bring some Hawaiian flavor to our volleyball program. Hele aku 'ula'ula nui (Go Big Red). Aloha."
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.