Official practices began this week for Nebraska volleyball and according to Coach John Cook, the Huskers have hit the ground running.
“They hit the wall a little bit, but I’ve been pretty pleased with what we’re doing and the level of play,” Cook said on Wednesday evening after the team’s fifth practice of the week. “The biggest thing is how hard they’re competing. We have a lot of competition, so it’s really fun and there’s a lot of energy in the gym. That makes it fun to watch these guys go after it.”
A big part of the team’s good start has been a quick adjustment from the program’s six freshmen. Cook said his message to the team would be that every starting spot is up for grabs, and all of the newcomers appear to be in the mix.
“Everybody’s rotating, everybody can play,” Cook said. “It’s not like a typical freshman year where our freshmen, we have to go train them for a couple weeks on their own court because they cannot hang in there. This freshman group is talented and they’re well dialed in to what we need to do. I asked them to be sure they knew all the drills and everything so when we started that we wouldn’t have to slow anything down. They’ve done a great job and our level has been pretty high to start with.”
Cook credits the upperclassmen on the team like Nicklin Hames, Lexi Sun, Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles. However, three of those freshmen — Ally Batenhorst, Lexi Rodriguez and Kennedi Orr — enrolled in January and got to experience what a Husker practice is like in person, and they communicated that to the other three — Lindsay Krause, Whitney Lauenstein and Rylee Gray — who arrived on campus in mid-May.
“We kind of learned the drills pretty early and we just kind of got a handle on what Husker volleyball is, so I think just helping them moving in here just recently, I think that will help them a lot,” Batenhorst said. “We’ve been helping them adjust.”
Three of those freshman — Batenhorst, Krause and Lauenstein — are competing with veterans Sun and Kubik for three starting spots. Batenhorst is working strictly on he left side, but Cook said he’s looking at the other four on both sides of the court.
“We’re just rotating everybody everywhere, pretty much,” Cook said. “We’re starting to kind of, I think, slowly figure it out because we’ve got to start practicing some lineups. But still we’re rotating them a lot. We really haven’t put them in what we think would be a starting lineup yet because I don’t want them thinking anything. I want them to know that they have to get after it.”
Sun, who has started on the left side the past three season, was one of the players Cook mentioned specifically as a candidate for the starting opposite hitter job.
“She’s always been a great right side hitter,” Cook said. “I’ve got three years of stats of her hitting on the right side in rotation one for us. Her numbers are really high. The question is can she play defense over there? Can she block over there? That’s what she’s not used to.”
Nebraska has questions to answer in the middle as well. With Lauren Stivrins still working her way back toward 100% (she hasn’t started doing on-court work yet but is working out), Nebraska has four healthy middle blockers. Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach return with plenty of experience, but Kalynn Meyer and Gray are pushing them as well.
“I’m glad we have four because it helps with training, and all four of them can play,” Cook said. “I would have no problem putting any of them in right now. There’s probably as tight of competition there right now as anywhere.”
Schwarzenbach started her first two years in Lincoln but lost the job to Caffey, a Missouri transfer, last year. This season, she’s stepped it up another level and was voted Lifter of the Year by her teammates.
— Husker Volleyball (@Huskervball) August 11, 2021
“We did something new this year,” Cook said. “Every day the team had to vote on who the lifter of the year was for that day, and then they accumulated the votes. So Callie was No. 1 at the end of the summer. It was totally chosen by her teammates and it was on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t like at the end of the summer, ‘OK, who’s lifter of the year?’ It was day-by-day and Brian [Kmitta] kept the vote tally and titled them up.”
Cook said he’s seen her strength gains translate to the court in the first few days of practice. She’s not the only middle who has stepped her game up, though.
“Kayla Caffey crushed our Husker Power Index testing, crushed it,” Cook said. “She’s like a different player out here right now with her explosiveness compared to where we were a year ago.”
The first chance for fans to see the gains the Huskers have made will be Saturday, Aug. 21. The Red-White Scrimmage is set for 6 p.m. CT at the Devaney Center.
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.