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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Husker Setters Set to Battle Throughout the Summer

May 11, 2023

According to junior setter Kennedi Orr, the dynamic in the Nebraska volleyball gym is one of competition where everybody wants to play and wants to help the team win.

That includes the team’s five freshmen, who all enrolled early to give themselves the best chance to make an immediate impact. If the squad’s exhibition in Central City showed anything, it’s that the newcomers certainly have the talent to do just that.

Every spot is up for grabs, and that includes setter where Orr is battling it out with freshman Bergen Reilly.

Coach John Cook said last offseason that his plan was to turn the keys to the offense over to Orr last season as four-year starting setter Nicklin Hames shifted into a defensive specialist role for her fifth season. However, that lasted one weekend as Cook seemingly didn’t see what he needed to from the offense with Orr running the show. He switched to a 6-2 two-setter offense for the following week with Hames back at setter, and Orr was in and out of the lineup as Cook ended up playing three different setters throughout the season.

Orr was the top-ranked player in the 2021 recruiting class according to PrepVolleyball.com, but a torn ACL ended her senior season at Eagan High School in Minnesota prematurely. It also set her development back, especially after she suffered a setback during the beach season last spring.

This year, Orr opted out of the beach season and instead spent her time training indoors, logging plenty of individual work with Kelly Hunter and Cook himself. 

“I think it was super important just to go back to the basics,” Orr said. “In college volleyball you kind of get thrown in and they expect you to do things, and after my surgery, I don’t know if I really had those basics anymore. So then just going back and getting the fundamentals down was super helpful, I think.”

With Hames exhausting her eligibility and Anni Evans transferring out of the program, Orr was the only setter left on the roster — until Reilly made it to campus. She was the top-ranked setter and fourth-ranked player in her class, and Cook’s message to her a couple of years ago while the Huskers recruited her was simple: come in ready to compete on day one. That’s exactly what she’s done, and Orr has been there to guide her as well.

“It was nice coming in with Kennedi,” Reilly said. “She’s been so great to me. She helps me with everything. She welcomed me with open arms. We obviously push each other, we push each other to get better and we’re competing against each other, but we’re such good friends off the court.”

Cook said he rotated players at every position throughout the spring, giving everyone a chance to show what they’re capable of. That included the setter position, but it was the veteran Orr who drew the start in the team’s exhibition against Wichita State.

Kennedi Orr sets the ball against the Wichita State Shockers during the Huskers’ spring exhibition. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Orr played the first set, showing some shaky play early but settling in to finish strong, guiding the team to a .256 hitting percentage and a 25-20 win while dishing out 15 assists with a pair of digs and a kill.

After getting a chance to take in the atmosphere at the sold-out Bison Activity Dome, Reilly checked in to set in the second quarter, and she returned for the third set as well.

“It was pretty good for me,” Reilly said. “I think I could kind of see their offense a little, know what they’re doing, what they’re doing on the defensive side too, and I could kind of figure out what I wanted to do when I got in. So it was good to see that, kind of feel out the crowd and feel out the gym and everything and just ease into it a little.” 

Reilly set the Huskers to a .308 hitting percentage in set two and upped that to.406 in the third, winning both 25-21 to complete the sweep. Reilly finished with 28 assists, six digs, a block assist and a kill and displayed an uncanny ability to put the ball exactly where it should go with great tempo time and time again.

“Bergen did great tonight,” Orr said. “She’s a great setter and I think she’s one of the smartest players we have here too, so I think that’s super helpful. Just her talking about offense is really crazy to listen to since she’s 17 I think still. We’re just kind of the best friends, that’s what happens when you go out for setter [practice] 30 minutes before every practice and grinding extra time every day.”

Cook wasn’t ready to declare a starter after the match, though he had good things to say about both of his setters.

“I thought they both did really well,” Cook said. “We were trying to go a little faster tempo and you can see when it all clicks, it looks really good. It’s hard to defend and I thought both of them, they did some really good things. They had their moments where they struggled a little bit. This is essentially their first match, their second scrimmage against somebody else. They both had a really good spring. They’re competing; it’s going to be a battle.”

After the injury-plagued start to her Nebraska career, Orr is healthy and looking to earn the starting role she wasn’t able to hold onto a year ago. After spending the spring sharpening up her fundamentals with the coaches, Orr said she’s focused on strengthening her mental game even further moving forward.

“Going into games with just a super positive mindset,” Orr said. “Knowing the game plan and just sticking with that instead of kind of getting lost in the crowd and the atmosphere. I would say I just want to keep improving on that, improving on offense, things like tempo, serving, being a good defender, just everything across the board.” 

As for Reilly, she’s no stranger to sharing the court with older players after filling in with the USA Volleyball Senior National Team at the Pan American Cup on short notice last September. She’s displayed poise beyond her age on the international stage, and as Cook said, the game doesn’t know how old she is. If she shows the coaches she’s the best option, Cook will have no problem sending her out there on opening night.

The team’s upcoming trip to Brazil will provide both setters more opportunities to make their cases for the starting job. Between the spring training and exhibition, the competition in Brazil and preseason practice in August, the coaches will have plenty of data points to evaluate as the competition rages on.

May the best woman win.

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