The Nebraska volleyball team will return its entire starting lineup from the 2019 season, but there’s been a lot of change as well since the Huskers bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight.
Hail Varsity recently caught up with Coach John Cook to go position-by-position through the roster and look ahead to the 2020 season. We wrap things up with a breakdown of the defensive specialists.
MORE: Setters | Middle Blockers | Outside Hitters
Returners: SO Kenzie Knuckles (3.83 digs per set, 0.964 reception percentage, 20 service aces), SR Hayley Densberger (23 digs, 5 service aces, 17-for-17 on serve reception), rFR Emma Gabel
Newcomers: FR Keonilei Akana (Hauula, Hawaii)
Departures: Megan Miller (Northwestern), Chen Abramovich (Cal Poly)
Nebraska had two freshman starters on in its 28-5 Elite Eight team in 2019. The first was Big Ten Freshman of the Year Madi Kubik at outside hitter. The other was Kenzie Knuckles, who stepped in from day one to succeed Kenzie Maloney as the starting libero despite learning on the fly as she transitioned from playing outside hitter.
Knuckles averaged 3.83 digs and quarterbacked the best defensive team in the Big Ten as the Huskers held opponents to .152 hitting (Minnesota was a distant second at .180). Knuckles topped 20 digs in six matches including a season-high 24 in Nebraska’s classic five-set win over Penn State.
One area in which Knuckles really struggled was serving. She got off to a brutal start to her career, serving up just five aces and 22 errors in her first 13 matches. Knuckles settled in and gained more confidence over her next 14 matches with 15 aces and 17 errors but she fell into a rut late with nine errors and no aces over last five, four of which were NCAA Tournament matches. Cook doesn’t judge his servers on aces and errors, but tying for the team-high with 48 errors is less than ideal.
Serving struggles aside, Knuckles had a terrific freshman season. But she’s not a freshman any more. The next step for her is handling everything on her plate with consistency.
“Kenzie finished on a really strong note,” Cook said. “Can she handle her school work? Can she handle her daily routine? Can she be consistent and play at a high level?
Perhaps the most significant departure for the Huskers this offseason was Megan Miller transferring within the conference. She played in 62 of Nebraska’s 69 matches over the last two seasons and averaged 2.04 digs per set.
Miller played primarily at right back, subbing in for opposite hitter Jazz Sweet in the back row. The Huskers have a few options to replace Miller’s contributions.
“We challenged Jazz and we challenge Jazz every year to become a six-rotation player because we can take advantage of her hitting out of the back row,” Cook said. “But you’ve got to be able to serve and pass and play defense. That would be one option; I would love that option because it gives us firepower out of the back row.
“Otherwise, we’re looking at one of our defensive specialists playing … The best passers play, the best diggers play, the best servers play, and so I don’t care who you are or what position it is. We’re going to get our six best servers on the court and we’re going to get our four best passers on the court, and that’s how we build a team. It’s open for everybody and we’ll find out who wants it.”
Besides Knuckles, the only defensive specialist on the roster with playing experience is Hayley Densberger, the senior walk-on from Malcolm. Densberger has played in 90 matches over the last three years, though her playing time has fluctuated. Her serving got her on the court early in her career; she served up 10 aces as a freshman and 16 as a sophomore when she saw her most extensive playing time. Densberger recorded 124 digs in 103 sets (1.2 per set) in 2018 as she and a freshman Miller handled DS duties together.
Miller’s role expanded as a sophomore and Densberger’s decreased in 2019, but Cook said he hopes Densberger’s experience can be “really good” for the team.
“Hayley has a chance to do some really good things and help this team, and she has over the course of her career,” Cook said. “But sometimes she’s her own worst enemy. She just has to learn to believe. She reminds me a little bit of Sydney Townsend. It took her three years to kind of figure it out and then her senior year we had to get her on the court.”
Keonilei Akana, the late addition to Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting class, is another option. You can read more on her here.
The final member of the defensive specialist group is Emma Gabel, the walk-on from Lincoln Pius X who spent her first year in the program recovering from a torn ACL suffered playing club ball last spring. Now healthy, Gabel earned her way onto the court during the abbreviating beach season and impressed her coaches.
“I saw a little bit in beach, but more importantly I saw it in her workouts,” Cook said. “We told her ‘You have to prove that you belong here this semester.’ She made a big statement to her coaches and her team how hard she was working and I was really impressed with how hard she worked. Beach was so short, it was really hard to see anything there. She’s never really played beach before so that was new to her. But bottom line is she worked really, really hard and earned the respect of her team and her coaches this spring.”
Nebraska has some work to do in the back row, but the ceiling is high for the position with an athlete like Knuckles at libero and a mix of experience and youth around her.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.