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Huskers Experimenting with System Change to Maximize Roster

September 07, 2022

John Cook has three setters on his roster, and all three of them have started matches through the first two weeks of the season. 

After alternating between Kennedi Orr and Anni Evans in a 5-1 (one-setter offense) during the thee matches in the Ameritas Players Challenge, Cook changed things up again for the Husker Invitational, opting to run a 6-2 (two-setter offense). Nicklin Hames started both matches while Evans and Orr each got a chance to be the second setter.

Cook has used a 6-2 sparingly throughout his career. He’s had four straight years with Hames as the starter and three years of Kelly Hunter before that, so sticking with the more traditional 5-1 where the setter plays all six rotations made sense. However, Cook said he doesn’t have a preference for one system over the other — he just wants to run whatever helps them win.

“There’s a lot you have to have to do it,” Cook said. “You’ve got to have enough outside hitters, you’ve got to have two good setters, you’ve got to be able to pass out of that. We did it in ‘05, we did it in 2010 and we did it in ’13 and punted it after the first weekend. So there’s a lot that goes into it. There are a lot more moving parts in a 6-2 but it does give you advantages because it’s hard to prepare for. We can be more creative offensively. You’ve got three hitters in the front row all the time. We’ve done in the past and had two great teams when we did it.”

Cook ran a 6-2 with Dani Busboom and Maggie Griffin setting in 2005, and the Huskers used it to go 33-2 and make it to the national championship match before falling to Washington. Sarah Pavan, Christina Houghtelling, Jordan Larson and Jennifer Saleaumua were the pins on that stacked team.

In 2010, Lauren Cook and Sydney Anderson rotated in a 6-2, leading the Huskers to a 29-3 record. They lost to Washington that season as well, though it happened in the Sweet 16.

Cook tried a 6-2 with Mary Pollmiller and Hunter, then a true freshman, for a few matches in 2013 before shifting back to running a 5-1 with the veteran in Pollmiller as the starter.

The Huskers hit .388 with the sophomore in Orr setting in the season-opening sweep against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Cook said during the offseason that he was giving her the keys to the car to see what she could do.

He also said Evans, the junior walk-on from Waverly, wouldn’t give up that spot without a fight. Evans started the second match against Tulsa and led the Huskers to a .310 hitting percentage in another 3-0 sweep. Cook went back to Orr for the weekend finale against Pepperdine, another sweep but one that saw the Huskers hit just .120.

On the following Monday, the Huskers began implementing the 6-2 in practice and they rolled it out on Thursday in a sweep against Loyola Marymount, hitting .363. They followed that up by hitting .330 in a sweep over Mississippi on Saturday. Cook said the setter has to be really good in a 5-1 and has to find ways to get her pin-hitters kills, and Orr is still figuring that out after recovering from a torn ACL then spending most of her freshman year on the sideline.

The setter play wasn’t the only factor, however. The 6-2 also provides an opportunity to get four different pin-hitters on the court rather than three, which is typically what you see in a 5-1, and Cook was having a hard time choosing just two of his three sophomores — Lindsay Krause, Whitney Lauenstein and Ally Batenhorst — to play alongside senior Madi Kubik. Lauenstein has gotten off to a hot start this season while Krause and Batenhorst have each shown flashes.

“You’ve got to have four outside hitters to even consider it, so that’s the starting point and then you go from there,” Cook said. “We have a lot of confidence in those guys and at times those guys have all been really good. So now we’ve got to get four of them on the court and hope they’re all good every night.”

While the 6-2 allows a team to rotate more pins and keep three attacking players in the front row at all times, it also eats up substitutions that could be used on defensive or serving specialists and puts more pressure on the setter to defend.

“We have three great back row players in Nicklin, Lexi [Rodriguez] and Kenzie Knuckles, and then Madi for an outside hitter is very good. Right now, like this week, Bekka [Allick] served, Bekka does a nice job for a middle, but when you run that system, it takes out a serving sub. There’s give and take with everything and we’ve just got to maximize what we’ve got and figure out what’s best.”

One wrinkle Cook has found to save a sub is by starting Knuckles, the 5-foot-9 defensive specialist and former high school hitter, in the front row when the other team serves first.

“It is super fun, and we do it to save the sub, but I say we do it so I can hit front row for one rotation,” Knuckles said. “Coach always says ’As long as I do this, you better get a kill.’”

When Hames decided to return for a fifth season, she agreed to transition from starting setter into a new role. She spent her offseason primarily working on her passing with the defensive specialists, though she did some setter drills to keep her skills sharp. Her stint as a DS lasted one week before Cook moved her back to setter, though the last time she split time in a 6-2 was during her senior season of high school.

“I’ve just kind of been open to do whatever the team needs me to do,” Hames said. “I’ve just tried to be really flexible and be the best teammate and friend I can be at the end of the day. If that means I’m supporting on the bench or setting or playing DS, just kind of being ready to adapt to new role at any moment and just having a lot of fun with it.”

Cook said this experience will be valuable for Hames well beyond her playing career, which is set to end at the conclusion of the 2022 season. She’s planning to spend next year as a graduate assistant under Cook to begin her coaching career.

“When she decided to come back and all that and wants to be a coach, what great experience is this?” Cook said. “Look at Dani Busboom, went from setter, set a national championship match and went to libero. Here’s Nicklin playing three different positions. It’s great for her development and it also just shows you why she’ll be a great coach because she’s a servant leader, and will do whatever we have to, and I thing that’s what you have to have as a coach.”

On Monday, Cook was noncommittal about whether or not he planned to stick with the 6-2 long-term. He said they’re evaluating everything — passing, hitting, tendencies and so on. He receives a 60-page self-scout every Monday that breaks down all of that and more.

Knuckles said she believes the team is versatile enough to adjust to whatever Cook asks of them and that the current experimentation could serve the team well down the road.

“This team is super close,” Knuckles said. “We say it every year, but this team is really close. We have a ton of skills and a lot of depth on this team, which is nice. We’ve been running a 6-2 so we’ve got to play all of our outsides and all of our pins. We have a lot of depth and a lot of skill and a lot of differences between our offense as well. So we’re kind of just figuring that out right now. I think it’ll be really helpful long term to know that we have so many options. Right now we have all three setters setting sometimes and all of our pins, so we know what they can bring in a game-like situation and being able to see that for a long term presence is really beneficial.”

Nebraska has two weeks of the nonconference remaining before the hunt for a Big Ten title begins, and the competition ramps up as three of the four matches are against top-20 teams. Nebraska will face its first ranked opponent in No.17 Creighton on Wednesday at CHI Health Center Omaha, and the Huskers are looking forward to testing themselves — and potentially their new system, depending on what Cook decides.

“I think a challenge is the best thing that could happen for us right now,” Kubik said. “I think this rotation needs to be tested and I think this is an opportunity for us to build better trust between each other and know that we can score big in big moments.”

Regardless of the system Cook settles on, if there’s one thing the first two weeks of the season has proven it’s that this team is as deep as any Cook has had in recent years. His task now is identifying the best way to maximize all that talent, and nothing — including running a 6-2 — is off the table.

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