The Nebraska volleyball team will return its entire starting lineup from the 2019 season, but there’s been a lot of change as well since the Huskers bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight.
Hail Varsity recently caught up with Coach John Cook to go position-by-position through the roster and look ahead to the 2020 season. First up is the setter position featuring junior-to-be Nicklin Hames.
Returners: Junior Nicklin Hames, Sophomore Nicole Drewnick
Newcomers: Freshman Anni Evans
Nebraska returns both of its setters from 2019 and adds a walk-on to the group for more depth.
Hames arrived in Lincoln fresh off winning five straight state titles in Tennessee (yes, five) and immediately stepped into the void left by Kelly Hunter’s departure as Nebraska’s starting setter. She earned All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors and led the Huskers to the brink of a national title as a freshman then followed that up with an All-Big Ten First Team season as a sophomore.
The Huskers are 57-12 (.826) with Hames running the show.
“The one thing that’s super unique about Nicklin is she’s just a gamer,” said Hunter, currently an interim assistant coach who was with the program as a graduate manager for 2019. “Coach always says ‘Who would you want in your foxhole if you went to war?’ She’s one of the first people I would pick just because she knows what she has to do to be great and she wants to do all that stuff. She just works so hard every single day for practice and all that.”
Hames arrived in Lincoln with sky-high expectations as a top-five recruit nationally, and she only fueled that fire by winning the starting job from day one and leading the Huskers to the national championship match. As a sophomore, she had to take on an even bigger leadership role as a team captain. So far, she’s lived up to the hype and then some.
“If you look at her stats in the biggest matches, Nicklin is probably our best player when you look at everything,” Cook said. “I know Nicklin loves the big show, she loves the big matches, the big stage. I think she’s ready to take a big jump this year. Her freshman year, she had [Mikaela] Foecke leading her. This year, she had to learn how to lead a team as a sophomore, and I think that is a lot harder than people think it is. So she’s grown and learned from that. I think she’s great. I think she’s ready to take a big jump now because of the experience she went through this past year.”
Hames has accomplished quite a lot already in her young career, but there are certainly areas of her game that need continued polishing if she want’s to become a truly elite setter. At 5-foot-10, she’s not a great blocker nor has she been much of a threat as an attacker. However, a setter can dominate a game without making a big impact in those areas, and that’s where Cook’s looking for her to make that leap he expects.
“I think consistency in her setting,” Cook said. “I think being able to manage a team and manage herself. I think sometimes when you’re trying to manage a team for the first time, you forget about yourself. It’s just a maturity process. I think she knows how hard she’s going to have to work. Teams have set the bar for where we need to be. She knows she has room to improve and I’ve just seen a really big change in her mentality this spring with beach and with our team, how hard she’s working. I think she knows she’s got to go to another level and has to work really hard to do it.”
Hunter has accomplished everything Hames is striving for as a two-time national champion setter, and her presence should continue to be a valuable resource for Hames. So too will the return of Tyler Hildebrand as associate head coach.
“I think next year will be really good for her with the addition of Tyler Hildebrand because I just remember my senior year and having him there,” Hunter said. “We kind of revamped my whole game and changed a lot of technical stuff. I think there are a couple technical things with her that he might try to tackle and she’ll take it on like a champ. She wants to get better and she wants to learn as much as she can about the game and how to be the best she can be. I think the addition of Tyler for her last two years is going to be huge for her.”
Cook said Hildebrand won’t work directly with the setters as he’ll be responsible primarily for the middle blockers and coordinating the team’s block and defense, but Cook won’t hesitate to lean on Hildebrand’s experience as a setter during his playing days.
“Tyler was a setter, so he will help me help Kelly help Nicklin with the setter position and give us great insights that only someone that’s played at the highest level that he’s played at can have,” Cook said.
Behind Hames, Nicole Drewnick enters her second season after enrolling at Nebraska a year early. She was originally part of the 2020 recruiting class getting set to arrive whenever athletes are allowed back on campus, but instead she has 29 matches under her belt. Drewnick recorded 10 assists in 2019 while seeing most of her playing time in Cook’s double-substitution he used to replace Hames in the front row with a better blocker for certain points.
She got plenty of practice reps as the B-side setter, however. At 6-foot-1, Drewnick provides a different kind of look than Hames as she played bother setter and hitter before arriving in Lincoln and has significant international experience.
Anni Evans was originally headed to Colorado State but ultimately backed off that commitment when she decided a walk-on opportunity at Nebraska was too much to pass up. Evans is from Waverly, just outside of Lincoln, and her two older brothers both walked on to the football team. She was a four-year starter for the Vikings who racked up nearly 3,300 career assists.
Nebraska’s in about as good of shape at the setter position as a program can be with an experienced star with leadership chops, a talented back-up with a bit of in-game experience under her belt and a freshman to develop behind them and provide depth in practice.
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.