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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Hoping to Send Seniors Off with a Championship (or Two)

November 24, 2022

The postseason will bring more home matches for No. 5 Nebraska, but this weekend’s regular season finale against No. 9 Minnesota will include a celebration of the Huskers’ four seniors.

The Huskers will honor Nicklin Hames, Kaitlyn Hord, Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles after the match against the Golden Gophers as they typically do on senior night, which Coach John Cook called “special” while praising the people behind the scenes and the fans who stick around for the ceremony.

Hames has spent five years in Lincoln. Kubik and Knuckles have been with the program for four years and announced on Tuesday they won’t be returning for a fifth. Hord is a newcomer this season who chose to spend her extra season at Nebraska after four at Penn State.

“They’re in leadership positions right now, so they’ve done a great job,” Cook said about the seniors. “We have a great team, great culture, nothing to complain about, and they’ve done a tremendous job. They’re great people, they’re great students, three of them are in master’s programs now. They had to go through COVID. So they’ve seen a lot of a lot of changes and they played a lot of matches, so they’re going to have a lot of great memories.”

Nicklin Hames (1) serves the ball against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the first set during a college volleyball match Friday, Aug., 26, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Hames, a native of Maryville, Tennessee, has been with the program the longest and is preparing to go through her second senior night, though this won’t be her final season with the program. She is planning to stick around next season as a graduate assistant on Cook’s staff.

Beginning her coaching career after this season was always the plan for Hames. Setting again was not as she spent the offseason training with the defensive specialists and played that position the first week of the season. However, Cook decided to switch things up and settled into a 6-2 that brought Hames back to the setter position. She’s started Nebraska last 12 matches and became Nebraska’s all-time career assists leader.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the three-time team captain has amassed 5,012 assists, 1,560 digs (currently fourth all-time) and 126 aces (fifth during the rally-scoring era) in her incredible career. She’ll crack 500 career sets plays on Friday against Wisconsin. She’s been a three-time All-Big Ten performer (first team twice, second team once) and an all-American (second team in 2020, honorable mention three times) among numerous other honors.

If the other seniors need some advice about handling emotions heading into senior night, they can certainly turn to Hames.

“I think she offers a lot of wisdom to our team in a lot of different ways,” Kubik said. “Just being a leader, being a captain for a long time, being a starter for a long time, playing in two national championships. So I think we lean on her a lot.”

Kubik and Knuckles have played in every match and nearly every set over the past four years. They both started from day one, and as a six-rotation outside hitter, Kubik has been on the floor for early every point since she first set foot on campus in 2019. She’s sat out just three of Nebraska’s 396 sets during her career, and though she’s played the same position all four years, she’s in a new role as a team captain this season.

Madi Kubik (10) taps the ball over the net against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the third set during a college volleyball match Saturday, September 24, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

“I think it’s evolved a little bit because I have been in that six-rotation outside hitter position for my entire career, but I think being a younger player, it was a lot different than being a captain and a leader this season,” Kubik said. “I think Kenzie and Lexi and I have really been able to lean on each other and grow a lot as leaders and help our team with our different strengths and sometimes weaknesses and help each other kind of round out our team. I think that’s been a really cool progression to see throughout the season.”

The West Des Moines, Iowa, native is having the most efficient attacking season of her career, averaging 3.36 kills per set on .263 hitting and 2.33 dis per set. She joined the 1,000-kill club earlier this season and is sitting at 1,227 kills and 916 digs heading into the final weekend of Big Ten play. She is the 2019 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a two-time All-Big Ten performer (first-team in 2021, second-team in 2019) and an All-American (third-team in 2012, honorable mention in 2019 and 2020).

Knuckles has been by Kubik’s side the entire time and said she’s seen “so much growth” from her fellow senior.

“Madi and I came in here four-and-a-half years ago, and I remember being a freshman like it was yesterday and just her personality too,” Knuckles said. “She will always be goofy Madi to me. She’s my best friend. But she has taken on a leadership role and has gained so much respect from this program and all of our teammates, and she’s done that by leading by example on the court, but she’s also done that off of the court and all the relationships that she’s built. I’m really proud of her for that.”

Friday will be Kubik’s 60th match at the Devaney Center, and the biggest of those matches have created the memories that will stick with her once she moves on.

“I think my favorite memories are just the big matches that we play at home when Devaney is super loud and crazy,” Kubik said. “Like in the Purdue match on Sunday when we had that 45, 50-second rally and we win the rally and the whole Devaney just erupts and we’re just so out of breath or just like clinging on to each other. One of my favorite things is just being able to compete in that environment with my teammates and getting to be successful with them.”

Knuckles isn’t far behind Kubik, playing in 391 of Nebraska’s 396 matches during her career. The Yorktown, Indiana, native spent her first two seasons as Nebraska’s starting libero before shifting into a defensive specialist role once Lexi Rodriguez arrived and locked down the libero job. Despite seeing her playing time reduced, however, her teammates and coaches respected her enough to name her a team captain as a junior, a role she’s maintained this season as well.

Kenzie Knuckles (2) and Lexi Rodriguez (8) celebrate a point against the Iowa Hawkeyes during a college volleyball match, November 11, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Knuckles joined the 1,000-dig club earlier this season, but said the relationships she’s built is what she’s most proud of as her Nebraska career nears its end.

“I think that’s something that’s really, really important to me,” Knuckles said. “I love volleyball, I really do, and I’m most thankful for it because of all the relationships that it’s built for me along the way. I know that the relationships I built are going to last me a lifetime. So it’s bittersweet.”

Knuckles said each season has brought her new memories that she cherishes.

“Freshman year I would have answered going to Japan and China; our international trip was so much fun,” Knuckles said. “And sophomore year, I would say the seniors; they were awesome, they led me so much. The past couple years, I would say the relationships that I’ve built. I can’t think of just one memory, but the group of girls that we have is something that’s really special, and like I said before, I love volleyball, but I love my people even more and I think that’s what makes volleyball so special.”

Unlike the other three, Hord has been in Lincoln for just six months. While the connection with the setters on the court has still been a work in progress (she’s averaging a career-low 1.31 kills per set on .280 hitting), the off-court transition has been seamless for Lexington, Kentucky, Native.

“She’s fit in great,” Cook said. “She feels like she’s been here for four years. She’s a great great young woman and great to be around. She’s positive, smiles. I don’t know, she’s pretty special. I’ve really appreciated having her in our program … She’s just really got a great soul, great heart. She’s got a funny side too if you can get her going. She works really hard. She’s low maintenance. She does her thing and she’s fun to coach and fun to be around and she’s a great teammate.”

Nebraska’s Madi Kubik (10) celebrates a kill by Kaitlyn Hord (23) in the second set during a college volleyball matchSaturday, Aug., 27, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Hord has been a dominant blocker as well, leading the country with 1.61 stuffs per set. Hord’s arrival has been a big key to Nebraska’s such with both of last year’s starting middle blockers, Lauren Stivrins and Kayla Caffey, moving on.

This year’s senior class has been the face of Nebraska volleyball for the past year or two, and Cook is hoping to send them off with the one thing they lack at this point.

“It’s a pretty major contribution to Nebraska volleyball and our success and we’ve had a lot of great wins, and these guys need a ring,” Cook said. “Whether it’s a Big Ten ring or national championship ring. That’s kind of the one thing that they still have on the still on the table that they have to go after. Look at all the matches they played in — we’ve been to Final Fours, national championship matches, we’ve been in position to win the Big Ten a couple times. So it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment for these seniors.”

Knuckles said that while earning a ring (Big Ten, national championship or both) is the goal, something else is motivating this group as they gear up for the postseason.

“I think the group of girls that we have, at the same time, our mindset is, ‘Let’s go out and have fun, let’s win together.’ And I think that that’s very rare that you have that. I think sometimes you have a bunch of individuals that are like, ‘Oh, I want to win, I want to win, I want the victory.’ But I think the group of girls that we have right now, we keep telling each other ‘I want to win for you.’ And we just have such a tight-knit group. It’s going to be so much fun, and I think that’s motivating alone.”

Before the seniors have their day on Saturday, however, Nebraska has the biggest match of its season on Friday as No. 3 Wisconsin visits Lincoln for a rematch with the Big Ten title on the line. Win that, and the team could have even more to celebrate during the senior night festivities.

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