Perhaps the biggest question John Cook had to answer prior to Friday’s season-opener in Gainesville, Florida, was who would replace Kadie Rolfzen at opposite side hitter.
Nebraska suffered significant losses at middle blocker and libero as well with the departures of Amber Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes, but Nebraska had natural replacements who Cook had been grooming to fill those holes in redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins and junior Kenzie Maloney.
There was no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings for Kadie Rolfzen. Instead, Cook had to turn to a pair of true freshmen: Jazz Sweet and Anezka Szabo.
Sweet was the No. 12 recruit in the 2017 class according to PrepVolleyball.com. At 6-foot-3, the native of Tecumseh, Kansas, played with the veteran Red team during the Red/White Scrimmage and had a quiet performance, finishing with three kills to three errors.
Szabo, a 6-foot-3 hitter from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was PrepVolleyball.com’s 34th-ranked prospect. She played with the White team in the intra-squad scrimmage, serving as the focal point of the offense with 15 kills and a match-high 46 attacks.
Cook let those two battle it out in practice right down until the season-opener against Oregon, and in the end it was Sweet who rose to the occasion.
“Over the course of two weeks she had better numbers,” Cook said.
Cook’s decision turned out to be the right one as Sweet exploded for 30 kills on .349 hitting. She led the team with 14 kills with just two errors in her first collegiate match.
“I thought she did a pretty solid job,” Cook said. “I didn’t even know who I was going to start until about two hours before the match. Anezka had a great couple days, so we’ve been letting those guys compete. I thought Jazz handled it really well and you can tell she got more comfortable as the weekend went on. She started showing some emotion and fire. She did a nice job attacking. She’s got a good arm and for a freshman blocker, she did a nice job; she was pretty disciplined.”
Sweet looked like anything but a bright-eyed true freshman as she stayed even-keeled throughout most of the matches, so much so that she drew the attention of ESPN and SEC Network sideline reporter Holly Rowe.
“She’s very stoic, and we’ve been trying to get it out of her,” Cook said. “I told her Holly Rowe, after the first night, asked me Saturday at practice, she goes ‘Why is Jazz so stoic?’ It’s just kind of her deal. So I told Jazz ‘They’re already asking on ESPN why you don’t show more emotion.’ Of course, when she did Holly Rowe came over to me and said ‘Now that’s more like it.’ It’s just getting comfortable.”
Comfort is an important thing for Sweet, who is a talented player but isn't blessed with the 40.5-inch vertical leap that Florida's Shainah Joseph put to good use against the Huskers.
“She plays bigger than she jumps because she’s got long arms, she’s got big hands,” Cook said. “She’s like Foecke — she has a really big hand so she has great hand contact and I think she’s a little bit funky, so it’s hard for blockers to see her. She must have pretty good vision because I thought a couple times she was going to get blocked and she found a way to go off or around them.”
Sweet may have won the starting spot, but Szabo still made her debut in the second match, appearing in three sets and serving primarily as a blocking sub. Cook has been effusive in his praise for Szabo’s ability as a blocker.
Cook said he sees six-rotation potential in both Sweet and Szabo down the road, and with their unique strengths and long-term potential, the right side hitter position at Nebraska appears to be in good hands over the next four years.
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.