If Coach John Cook has settled on a starting lineup, he’s keeping it close to the vest a couple days out from the Huskers’ season-opener.
After practice on Wednesday, Cook said he’ll probably play a couple lineups throughout the weekend as preseason No. 5 Nebraska plays three matches in three days in the Ameritas Players Challenge at the Devaney Center.
The NCAA changed the rule governing season length from competition days to total contests during the offseason, which means teams are no longer incentivized to squeeze three matches into two days as part of these early-season tournaments.
“It’s going to be a long weekend, but we’re eliminating somebody playing back-to-back,” Cook said. “We’re trying to get our matches in. So it’ll be good for our fans because it’s three different days and we won’t have people sitting here all day. I think we’re just excited to play; we need to play other teams now. All three of these teams are really solid, so this is going to be a really good tournament.”
This year’s field includes Utah State, Lipscomb and SMU in addition to Nebraska. Cook said it wasn’t difficult to find teams willing to participate even with the extended stay in Lincoln, in part because Nebraska is helping to subsidize the hotel costs.
“We’re trying to make it where if we can get three great matches, everybody has the same chance to recover and rest and prepare and nobody has an advantage just because of what time they play,” Cook said. “This is what’s good about it. Again, with three matches it gives every team a chance to play different lineups, play other players, and so that’s one of the other good things about the opening weekend.”
Cook said he’ll use multiple lineups both to keep players fresh and to give everyone a shot to play, but junior Ally Batenhorst said the team’s busy offseason has the Huskers well prepared for the schedule.
“I think we played a lot of matches in Brazil, so we’re kind of used to that a little bit, and I think we go really hard in practice every day,” Batenhorst said. “Coach sets it up perfect, our practice plans, where we can be well prepared for that. So I think we’re ready and I think we’ve got the stamina for it.”
Cook and the Huskers have many questions to answer early in the season, not the least of which is which of the pins play and how many play all six rotations. Cook said all of the outside hitters have been training to play all six, and that includes opposite hitter Merritt Beason who did so at Florida. However, despite all of the pins showing the promise to play all the way around, Cook also offered high praise for freshman defensive specialist Laney Choboy.
“The key is how do I get Laney in the game, and Lexi [Rodriguez], as much as we can, because those two guys are elite,” Cook said. “You guys saw it; they’re elite. So we’ve got to figure out how to get those guys in the game as much as possible and touch as many balls as possible. That’s one of our challenges is how to how to do that. So it’s going to eliminate everybody playing six rotations, because if you’re bringing Laney in, she’s coming in for an outside hitter.”
Cook is hoping to settle on a lineup early in the season, but that will leave some talented players on the bench. What happens if the starter struggles through the first couple of sets? Will he turn to the bench or let the starter try to play through the struggles?
“That’s a game-time decision and we’ll see how things are going,” Cook said. “It’ll be how they’re competing, are they talking, are they bringing energy, those types of things, or are they going to the I-club? The internal, thinking about themselves instead of their teammates. If they go there, they’re out. That’s one of the things that determines it; it’s not always about stats.”
The Huskers will open the season on Friday against Utah State at 6 p.m. CT. The Aggies made the NCAA Tournament last season, falling to Arkansas in the first round. Utah State returns most of its lineup including its top three pins in Tatum Stall (3.11 kills per set on .229 hitting), Adna Mehmedovic (2.70 kills per set on .268 hitting) and Shelby Capllonch (2.54 kills per set on .219 hitting), its top middle blocker in Kennedi Boyd (1.83 kills per set on .355 hitting, 1.06 blocks per set), its libero in Jordan Holdaway (3.58 digs per set) and both of its setters in Leah Wilton-LaBoy (5.48 assists per set) and Beatriz Rodrigues (5.17 assists per set).
On Saturday at 5 p.m., the Huskers will face Lipscomb, a squad that went 16-13 last season and also returns most of its key contributors. Setter Sophia Hudepohl (10.49 assists per set), outside hitter Caroline Stogner (3.33 kills per set on .246 hitting), libero Delaney Smith (4.0 digs per set) and middle blocker Meg Mersman (2.05 kills per set on .255 hitting, 0.98 blocks per set) are all back for the Bison. Lipscomb also has a Nebraska native on its roster in freshman middle blocker Brooklyn Fuchs, a Lincoln East product.
Finally, Nebraska will face SMU coming off a 22-10 season. The Mustangs return two key plays in outside hitter Jamison Wheeler (3.41 kills per set on .224 hitting) and setter Celia Cullen (10.16 assists per set).
Also on the roster is sophomore setter Casey Batenhorst, Ally’s younger sister. When Ally heard their teams would be playing each other this season, Ally joked with her sister that she was going to blast a ball at her face.
“She’s a year younger than me, so we played together for three years and we won state together and she’s been my setter for three years,” Nebraska’s Batenhorst said. “So we’ve had a really good relationship, and obviously, I think when the setter-hitter connection, you’re also siblings, you kind of bicker a little bit when things aren’t going well. But we grew up together and we’ve kind of built that relationship and we bonded really well. So we’re really excited to play each other. I’m actually so excited to see her; it’s been a while.”
Batenhorst said she has a lot of family members living in Nebraska that will be at the match, thanks in part to her teammates that gave her extra tickets. Members of the Batenhorst clan likely won’t be difficult to identify as Ally said they’ve made T-shirts to show support for both sisters.
First serve on Sunday is set for 2 p.m. The Utah State match will be televised on Nebraska Public Media while the other two matches will be available on B1G+.