The last time the Huskers took the court for a real match was Dec. 14, 2019. After 13 months of workouts, practices, pauses and uncertainty, Nebraska will finally return to competition on Friday at Indiana. Are the Huskers ready?
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” senior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “Obviously we haven’t played in over a year I think now. This past weekend we kind of tried to implement a game-like situation, so we had a pre-game practice, pre-game meal, all that here at Devaney. We switched the courts, wore jerseys, all of that. I think that kind of was definitely a help for us in order to prepare for this weekend and be ready after not playing so long.”
In addition to the 2020 season taking place in 2021 during the spring semester, the schedule itself will look dramatically different as well featuring back-to-backs against the same team in the same location in order to reduce travel. The No. 5 Huskers will face Indiana on Friday and then turn around 24 hours later for round two on Saturday.
“There are two challenges,” Coach John Cook said about the format. “One is playing a team and then the next night adjusting and making adjustments and being able to maybe throw something different at them. So there’s going to be a chess game going back and forth between night one and night two.
“And then the second part is the emotional part. If one team wins, how do they come out mentally and emotionally the next night? Do they have the same energy, the same fire, or do they just assume they’re going to win? I think sometimes when you lose you learn more from losing, so it’s going to create some interesting dynamics on that second night, mentally how teams come out. I see those as the two biggest things. As a coach, I love it because you get to prepare for one night then get to make adjustments the second night, so it kind of makes it fun and interesting.”
The Huskers returned all seven starters (including their libero) from last season, but there are a few newcomers as well that could earn important roles. True freshman walk-on setter Anni Evans is one of them after last year’s back-up setter and serving sub Nicole Drewnick opted out of the 2020-21 season.
“With this COVID, everybody has to be ready to go,” Cook said. “We’re thankful that Anni is part of our program and she’s blossoming and doing a really good job. It’s just part of the deal. Everybody has to make their decisions, what’s best for them, so we support it.”
While the Huskers returned all their starters, they’re not all guaranteed to retain their spots. Cook said on Tuesday that the battle at middle blocker is still very much ongoing. All-American and senior captain Lauren Stivrins is going to start, but the second spot is still up for grabs. Callie Schwarzenbach, a two-year starter and defensive force, is battling to hold off newcomers Kayla Caffey, a Missouri transfer, and true freshman Kalynn Meyer, a top-25 recruit. Meyer played next to Stivrins in the team’s Red-White scrimmage back in November.
“Very tight competition, very tight,” Cook said. “Obviously Lauren has proven herself, but there are days she’s not our best middle in here. It’s a tough one. It will probably be a game-time, when we get there decision. We’ll see how it goes the next couple days of practice.”
True freshman Keonilei Akana and redshirt freshman Emma Gabel have also been competing with senior Hayley Densberger for playing time at defensive specialist with the departure of Megan Miller. Cook always said the best servers will play, and Cook says he has plenty of them to choose from.
“We’ve got probably about eight great servers right now, so we’re debating which six are going to get to serve,” Cook said. “We’re pretty pleased. We’ve become, in my opinion, a very good serving team. There are days I feel sorry for our passers. They’ve really embraced that and we’re a year older. So we’re excited about the level of serving that we have on our team and like I said we have about eight that I feel comfortable all of them being in a match.”
The Huskers served up 125 aces — one less than their opponents — and committed 238 errors last season. While aces and errors don’t tell the whole story when it comes to serving, that was a significant decrease from 2018 when the Huskers served up 215 aces in 36 matches, half an ace more per set. Miller (24 aces) was one of the team’s most accurate servers in 2019. Nicklin Hames (26) and Lexi Sun (25) led the team in aces, but both were far more error-prone than Miller.
“We’re always stressing it, but it’s an area that it takes time to develop into a great server, and understand how to serve and be low error and really put pressure on other teams,” Cook said. “We’ve been working hard on it and they’ve embraced it. I think they’re smart enough to understand there are a lot of great hitters in our conference and one way you can slow them down is to serve tough and get them out of system.”
Despite the stop-and-start nature of the offseason, Sun said the newcomers have acclimated themselves well to Nebraska volleyball.
“We do things our specific way and when you first get here you really have to learn a lot of the techniques and the drills and all the things that we do,” Sun said. “But they caught on so quick and it’s been really, really cool to see the competition and how the new girls have raised the level in our gym.”
Among those newcomers are the three 2021 recruits who have enrolled early: setter Kennedi Orr, outside hitter Ally Batenhorst and defensive specialist Lexi Rodriguez. Orr is still recovering from a knee injury that ended her senior season at Eagan High School in Minnesota, but the other two are gradually acclimating to Nebraska volleyball.
“They’ve only been in our team practice a couple times, but they did great,” Cook said. “We’ve been training them outside of our team because one, they weren’t conditioned to go for a three-hour practice or two-a-days. Second of all, we want to make sure we’re incorporating them into where they’re not going to get in the way or risk injury. We’re slowly working them in, but they’ve done great. They’re lifting four times a week. They’re in all the meetings and everything.”
They early enrollees won’t be eligible to play this season, but Nebraska applied for and received a waiver allowing them to travel with the team this year.
“What’s better, for them to be with us or sitting on campus in the dorms on a weekend?” Cook said. “They’re with us during the week; they’re a risk to spread COVID. We fought hard to have them travel with us, and thankfully we got that.”
The extended offseason also provided challenges beyond the overall uncertainty. Senior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet was cited for suspicion of DUI back in October, but Cook said that won’t impact her availability for the season.
“She’s been great,” Cook said. “She’s done everything she was supposed to do or required to do. She’s worked really hard. We’ve had some great discussions about what she’s learned through all that and she’s had to go through a lot of things that are required to move past something like that.”
Indiana graduated seven seniors from last year’s team, and with no film to study Cook said the team’s preparation for the season-opener has been focused almost entirely on their side of the net.
“We’re not spending a whole lot of time worrying about Indiana right now,” Cook said. “We’re just trying to fine-tune our race car of Nebraska volleyball.”
First serve is set for 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Both matches will be streamed on BTN+.