One of John Cook’s favorite phrases is “serve, block and defense.” Chances are you’ll hear it at least once per interview, and it’s what he’s built his program on.
No team has embodied that phrase more than the 2021 Huskers. A glance at Nebraska’s yearly stats dating back to the 1983 season (as far back as they go on Huskers.com) shows that this year’s .222 hitting percentage is the lowest in at least the past 39 seasons.
The only season that even came close was 2014, when the Huskers hit .236. Every other season was over .250. Yet the 2021 Huskers were a couple points away from winning the national title and finished second in a stacked Big Ten.
So how did the Huskers reach the title game? Serve, block and defense.
This season, the Blackshorts allows opponents to hit just .148, ninth-best in the country (and the best in the Big Ten by a good margin). They averaged 17.0 digs per set, the highest figure in at least the past 14 years (the NCAA moved the target score from 30 to 25 to win a set in 2008). Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield call Nebraska “the best defensive team in the country.”
Though Cook grades his serving by a different in-house metric, Nebraska’s 1.5 aces per set stacks up with some of Nebraska’s best seasons over the last decade-and-a-half. The Huskers’ 2.5 blocks-per-set average is solid as well, if not elite.
Nebraska’s serving kept teams out of system more often than not, and the Huskers block touches made it tough to get clean kills. But what made them special was the team’s defense, and that starts with the defensive specialists in the back row.
Madi Kubik said the players refer to freshman Lexi Rodriguez (5-foot-5), junior Kenzie Knuckles (5-foot-8) and sophomore Keonilei Akana (5-foot-9) as “the Midgets,” though Cook said the coaches have a different nickname for them: the Legion of Boom. Regardless of what you call them, that trio was a huge part of Nebraska’s success this season, and all three of them shared the court for long stretches as Cook sacrificed some back-row attacking to load up on defense.
“We spend a lot of time with it and practice and so all the drills that we go through, and especially the three of us, the three littles, we always talk about how we’re going to keep every ball off the ground and we’re just going to be aggressive with each other,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was the top-rated libero in the 2021 class and the first of the “Dream Team” campers to commit. She earned the starting libero job from day one and led the Huskers with 4.33 digs per set, and it didn’t take long for her to impress her teammates.
“It’s very clear that she is one of the greatest defensive people to pretty much ever come through this program” Lauren Stivrins said in late October after Rodriguez had swept the Big Ten Defensive Player and Freshman of the Week honors. “She’s so talented and we’ve seen that from day one, so it’s no surprise that she keeps getting these accolades and she’s one of those people that really doesn’t care about any of that stuff and just wants to get the ball up. So I think she’s a great addition to this team and I think she’s only going to continue to get better and better each day.”
Rodriguez (“Roddy”) earned four Big Ten Freshman of the Week and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors this season. She earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and made both the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Freshman Team. She was the AVCA North Region Freshman of the Year, an AVCA First-Team All-American and the AVCA National Freshman of the Year.
“She just has a way of seeing the court defensively and just has this natural instinct that you can’t train,” Stivrins said. “I think that she’s also one of those people that even with all that natural ability she really wants it and wants to get better each day and you can see that in her and the way that she plays and the way that she communicates with the team. I’m excited to see where she goes from here.”
Cook compared Rodriguez to another All-American libero in Justine Wong-Orantes, who just won a Gold Medal with the United States’ Olympic team. As good as she was at Nebraska, Wong-Orantes was only a two-time All-American, and she only made the first team once. Rodriguez is already ahead of schedule, and she’s only going to keep getting better.
“Roddy has always been a stud,” Knuckles said. “Since she got to the program she’s always been great and it’s kind of just been like, ‘That’s what Roddy does.’ But she actually has gotten a lot better and I didn’t think that was possible because the girl does everything. But she did, she got a lot better, and it’s great watching her be able to kind of get out of her cage a little bit, talk a little bit more. She’s, I would say, more of a quieter person, but once you get to know her and play with her for a little bit, you start to realize her talking and get her out of her shell a little bit more. But she’s grown so much as a teammate and a player and everything else. I’m super proud of her for that.”
Early in the season, Rodriguez attributed some of her accomplishments and improvement to Knuckles’ mentorship. Knuckles’ was in Rodriguez’s shoes three years ago, starting at libero as a true freshman, and had plenty of experience for Rodriguez to rely on.
“She has been a huge role model to me, just throughout,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been here since January and from January until now she has always been so supportive, encouraging. Then just in the past month when I was actually eligible to play she’s been just so helpful with whether it was technique staff or just kind of the mental part and just everything. Just the role that I was going into, she helped with so much. Playing on the court next to her is awesome too. I get fired up when we’re both back there. She’s been a huge part of how comfortable I’ve been able to play these past couple of weeks.”
Knuckles (“K2”) started at libero for the past two seasons, but with Rodriguez’s arrival Cook had the defensive specialists battle it out in camp. The freshman won the job, which could have created some hard feelings for the veteran.
“At first it was really difficult for me, but after I accepted my role and started this new position I realized how much better it was for me,” Knuckles said. “So I would say yeah, there was a moment of just feeling like I let myself down, but not too long after that I realized how much better I’m doing for the team for myself.”
Despite the demotion, Knuckles teammates had already voted her a team captain, and Cook still found a significant role for her at middle back (as opposed to left back, where the libero typically plays).
“I’ve always played middle back my whole life, so it kind of just came naturally to me, a little bit looser,” Knuckles said. “Playing left back I kind of had to learn a little bit new techniques and where to stand, and all that different stuff, and that just came with practice and stuff. With with middle back, it’s a little bit more reading and a little bit more just moving around and kind of reading where you think the ball is going to be up versus left back is more point-blank digging and fast balls, stuff like that. I would say that I’m a little bit better with just moving and being able to do that so I think that’s why middle back is a little bit better for me.”
Her teammates noticed the change her position move bought about in her personality and mood on the court, and she averaged 2.06 digs per set while recording a reception percentage of .975 (best among the four players teams most often targeted with their serves). She also notched 35 aces (second on the team) with just 31 errors.
“She has just played so free, and I know it’s hard to understand what that means, but you can just tell she’s so comfortable,” Rodriguez said. “She’s so happy and you can just tell her pure joy for the game is really coming out in this new role and she’s fully embracing it, so it’s pretty awesome.”
Knuckles’ new role also allowed her to get back to her high school roots a bit. She played outside hitter for Yorktown in Indiana and averaged 4.3 kills per set as a senior. Kubik, the only Huskers other than Nicklin Hames who played all six rotations, was Nebraska’s top attacking threat from the back row, but Cook encouraged Knuckles to take some swings this season as well, which Knuckles said she loves.
“Honestly, my first thought process is defense and then if I just see that the play’s kind of going out of whack or we have Madi down and, I don’t know, just certain situations you kind of just know like, ‘OK, I think I need to get set right now,’ and just call for the ball and hope for the best.”
Knuckles only averaged 0.44 kills per set on .171 hitting as she adjusted to taking swings again, but she had some timely kills that typically fired up the team and the fans.
“It’s awesome, and I love setting her,” Rodriguez said. “I have so much trust in her. It doesn’t matter that she’s a smaller hitter back there, I know that she’s fired up to get those kills too and she’s going to do her job and find ways to score just like everyone else.”
The third member of the Legion of Boom is Akana, or “K-Thump.” The sophomore from Hawaii averaged 2.54 digs per set, cracking double digits in 19 of her 34 matches including a career-high 24 in he championship match against Wisconsin. She averaged 2.41 digs per set as a freshman last year, and credited the Huskers’ veteran setter in Nicklin Hames, an elite defensive player in her own right, for helping her grow in that area since she got to campus.
“Having Nicklin of course in the same position as me at right back, she’s just someone I’ve always looked up to,” Akana said. “Even last year, I watched her play a lot defense-wise and even asking her a lot of questions because I know she’s a great defense model and even all the other seniors just telling us younger players to just be aggressive, I think that’s really helped us defense-wise.”
As important as she was defensively, it might have been the service line where Akana made her biggest impact. She led the Huskers with 42 aces (with just 37 errors) and served numerous multi-point scoring runs throughout the season. Former associate had coach Tyler Hildebrand gave her the “K-Thump” nickname because of her serve.
“I would say there’s been a huge improvement,” Akana said. “I’ve definitely had Zoom, FaceTime calls with my high school coaches and their teams at my old high school and even they’ve asked about my serving because there’s been a huge difference from high school right now. So I think just adding that stress that we talk about as a team and we take so much time practicing it, adding that thump at the end, that’s been a lot more helpful and it’s been really effective during the games and practice.”
For all their offensive inconsistencies, the Cornhuskers made a run to the national championship match because of their defense, and the backbone of that defense — the Legion of Boom — is set to return. Hames was a big part of Nebraska’s defense as well, and it remains to be seen how Kennedi Orr will fill those shoes if Hames does not return for an extra season in Lincoln, but the Huskers have a strong core to build around as they gear up to make another title run in 2022.
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.