This story originally appeared in the August issue of Hail Varsity. Never miss an issue of the magazine with a subscription to Hail Varsity.
Lauren Stivrins never thought she’d be in the situation she finds herself in right now.
During her time as a Husker, she’s experienced tremendous success and crushing loss, heart-breaking tragedy and the fear of the unknown, and through it all she’s emerged as the face of one of the best volleyball programs in the country.
Everything she’s been through in her four-and-a-half years in Lincoln has shaped her into the leader and person she has become.
Stivrins arrived in Lincoln in 2016 as a top-10 recruit nationally after a standout career at Chaparral High School in Phoenix, Arizona. The Huskers had just come off a 32-4 season that culminated in a sweep of Texas in the national championship match and looked poised for a repeat, with most of the rotation set to return.
However, with LSU transfer Briana Holman coming off a mandatory redshirt season and Amber Rolfzen returning, the Huskers were set at middle blocker. With that in mind, Coach John Cook decided to redshirt the 6-foot-4 Stivrins.
“At the time, we had two very experienced middles, and physically she wasn’t quite ready yet,” Cook said. “And then I think emotionally and maturity- wise she needed a year to be around this program and understand what it takes and how hard you have to work. I’m just glad it worked out and we didn’t have to pull her out of the redshirt, but she was behind two great middles.”
Stivrins watched and cheered on her teammates from the sideline as the Huskers went 31-3 and advanced to the Final Four before falling to Texas in three sets.
“At the time, it was just kind of frustrating because obviously nobody wants to sit out, and I got to see all my other club teammates have their success and their great freshman-year campaigns and I was just kind of on the sideline, so that was really sad, I thought,” Stivrins said. “But really, I was getting the best training with the best staff on the best team in the nation. I really had no idea what was going on and I think that was instrumental in me growing as a player and a person, and I think had I not had that year I wouldn’t be where I am today. Looking back, it’s kind of crazy but I’m so glad that it happened the way it did.”
Rolfzen was a senior in 2017, and Stivrins stepped right into the starting lineup in 2018 alongside Holman. She averaged 2.07 kills per set on .309 hitting and 1.02 blocks per set as the Huskers went 32-4 and beat Florida in four sets to claim the national title. Senior Kelly Hunter served as team captain that season.
With Hunter moving on, Cook tabbed Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney as the team captains for the 2018 season. However, with both of them being seniors, he was already thinking beyond that season and looking ahead at who might be able to step in after Foecke and Maloney moved on. He identified Stivrins as well as setter Nicklin Hames.
“I probably started talking to [Stivrins] about it going into her sophomore year; I probably started planting seeds,” Cook said. “She’s a great competitor, she wills other players, she does it in practice, she works really hard, she was lifter of the year two years ago, so I just think those are the qualities we’re looking for as leaders that can set great examples for the rest of the players.”
The Huskers went 29-7 that season but made it all the way back to the national championship match, falling to Stanford in five sets. Following a strong season overall (2.36 kills per set, .421 hitting, 1.17 blocks per set), Stivrins showed she was ready to step into the spotlight with 19 kills on .615 hitting and five blocks against the Cardinal. Preparing for what the following season would hold was a process that took the entire season and into the offseason, however.
“I knew it was coming, but at the same time there was so much work that needed to be done — not so much physically, but mentally I was just very much a go-with-the-flow type of person and just kind of sit back and enjoy the ride,” Stivrins said. “Coach was like, ‘No, we need you to step up; we need you to be the person that people turn to when they have problems and be the person that’s going to use their voice when we need it.’ I’d never really had that role, so I had a lot of maturing, but luckily I had the best examples in previous years and people to learn from. I think the transition, although a little rocky at first, I think we’ve made huge strides.”
Part of the transition included a “leadership 101” class, and Stivrins and Hames got a chance to learn on the job after that as the team took its summer trip through Asia. By the time the team returned to Lincoln it become clear to Cook that he made the right decision, as he officially named Stivrins and Hames team captains.
“I thought that was really, really cool,” Stivrins said. “ I think it really struck home for me when I saw the captain’s plaque on my locker because when I was a recruit and when I was there my first few years, when I saw that on other peoples’ lockers, I was like ‘That is cool, those are the people to be, those are the girls that everyone looks up to.’ That was really cool to see that hanging on my locker.”
Stivrins and Hames are similar in terms of their leadership styles, and the rest of the Huskers really fed off their energy and emotion all season.
“She is great leader and the one thing about us is we’re both very emotional leaders,” Hames said. “We’re both very fiery, very competitive, and we’re always feeding each other’s energy. We have a lot of energy. When we have to have those hard talks, she does a great job of just telling everyone what needs to happen … She just instills that confidence in everyone around who she’s leading, how she’s playing. We’re thankful for her, and she’s such a great leader, and I’m thankful that I get to lead next to her. I learn from her every day.”
Stivrins and Hames aren’t on their own, however. There are plenty of people they can work with and turn to inside the program when they need advice, including Cook.
“I tell them all the time I have to be able to trust them, they have to be great communicators,” Cook said. “They’ve got to fill me in when I need to intervene with something and if they need help, and then they also work with our sports psychologists and Brian Kmitta, our strength coach. So I would call it a team within a team that works together, and they all work with those people to help lead the group.”
Foecke is one of the best players in program history and she grew into an effective leader by the end of her career as well. She left a massive pair of shoes to fill, and Stivrins did her best to step into them. She had no idea just how big of a challenge it would be taking on all that responsibility, however.
“Last year, there were a few growing pains because I didn’t realize how much pressure that actually was,” Stivrins said. “It was just a really tough year with everything that happened and we had such a young team, so there were a lot of things that I wasn’t taking into account but have helped me grow and learn so many things about myself. It’s not as easy as Mikaela and Kelly made it look and there’s a lot more to it, so I’ve learned that the hard way. I think there have been a lot of ups and downs, but the ups completely outweigh the downs. It’s been amazing and my team’s been super supportive of me this entire time, too. We’re all just trying to get through it together and figure out our lives. I think it’s been amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
The 2019 roster featured six freshmen including two starters, six sophomores and no seniors. As Stivrins said, she had a young team around her, which added another variable to the already difficult equation that was leading the team. Yet the Huskers still went 28-5 and made it to the regional final round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I think Lauren did a really good job last year of leading our team,” said libero Kenzie Knuckles, who started as a freshman last season. “I think that she’s had a lot of ways of leading other people. For me, she knew what to do even when I was stressed out or I wasn’t playing the best. I think that she’s really good at reading other players and understanding what needs to be said. She’s super good at communicating and all those, but I think all of that comes from just the respect that our team does have for her. I know everyone on the team has so much respect for her. I think everything that she says everyone takes to heart, and she takes the time out to say those things and knowing when something needs to be said. I think that she just is a very selfless leader.”
Whatever on-court challenges Stivrins and the Huskers have faced pale in comparison to what they’ve experienced away from the game, and Cook said she’s done a great job navigating through all of that.
Stivrins was playing at an incredibly high level—Cook thought she was the best player in the Big Ten—through the end of October. She was averaging 2.64 kills per set on .395 hitting to that point. Then the Huskers returned home from a trip to Purdue and learned that graduate manager Dane Leclair had died over the weekend.
“That rocked everybody’s world including hers,” Cook said. “She had to learn how to lead through that and it was really tough. It was unprecedented for anybody that’s gone through this program.”
The tragedy impacted everyone in the program, and Stivrins’ numbers took a hit over the last 14 matches. However, Nebraska won nine of its last 10 regular-season matches, including a five-set win at No. 7 Minnesota that put Stivrins’ leadership on full display.
After taking the first two sets 25-22 and 25-18, the Golden Gophers rallied to take sets three and four, 25-19 and 25-11. With the Huskers falling apart, Stivrins took it upon herself to step in before the coaches and deliver the message on the bench before the fifth set began.
“I think right before the fifth set, everyone was super frazzled, and we weren’t really sure what was happening, and everyone was just in their own head,” Knuckles said. “You could just tell that something was off with us. She took the timeout, showed us how to take a deep breath, for everyone to calm down, and just play volleyball like we know how. I think in that moment, we realized we’re fine. Everything’s OK. I think she really calmed us down. She just basically gave a speech and everything and she said made a lot of sense. She just communicated well with us. That goes back to what I was saying about, she always knows what to say. We don’t even have to tell her how we’re feeling or how the plays are going. She just already knows.”
The Huskers dominated the fifth set, blowing out the Gophers 15-3. Cook said that wasn’t an isolated incident; he sees that kind of leadership from Stivrins all the time in practice and in other matches.
“I think that was just the perfect moment that got caught on camera, and of course, we had a great result coming out of that, so it’s probably the most famous,” Cook said.
The Huskers fell short of their goal of a fifth consecutive Final Four appearance, losing to Wisconsin in straight sets. Nebraska went 0-3 against the Badgers, who went on to finish as the national runner-up. Stanford, to whom the Huskers lost during the nonconference schedule, won its second consecutive national title. Purdue was the only other team that beat the Huskers last season as they finished 28-5.
With no seniors on the roster, disappointment soon turned to focus on the next goal: destination Omaha. The 2020 NCAA Championship was scheduled to be held in Nebraska’s backyard in December, and the Huskers had everything they needed to get there.
The Huskers were working toward that goal in March, competing in beach volleyball and looking ahead to their spring indoor exhibition match, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down the world. Once again, Stivrins and Hames had to guide their team through uncharted waters.
Through everything she’s experienced over the last couple of years, Stivrins said she’s had some incredible people around her to rely on for advice, support and anything else she might need as she shouldered the burdenof leading one of the premier programs in college sports.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with my parents recently because they have a place here in Lincoln, and they were trying to get out of Arizona and the craziness that is going on down there, so they’ve been super helpful about keeping calm, whether that’s just playing cards or just like someone to vent through,” Stivrins said. “My dad’s gone through collegiate and professional athletics so he understands the stress and the pressure that comes along with it, but also my mom is just like the most amazing person ever, so it’s really nice to have people that are willing to listen.”
Stivrins’ father, Alex, was a standout basketball player at Lincoln (Neb.) East before playing at Creighton and Colorado in college. He had a 12-year professional career, with stops in the NBA and overseas.
“Honestly, Coach [Cook] is always there, even sometimes when I don’t want him to be,” Stivrins continued. “He’ll send me a text like ‘You talking?’ He just wants to constantly be in communication, which is awesome, and he wants to know the vibe of the team at all times.
“I think that my teammates have been second to none. I don’t think we could have gotten through what we have gone through without each other. Lexi [Sun], for being my roommate and being so patient and always being someone I can turn to and listen to, she’s been so great with this team and she’s been super helpful for me as well. She’s had a lot of growth as a person which is really cool to see, and I think all of us have. It sucks that we had to go through what we have, but at the same time none of us are the same people that we came in here as, and I think that we all are going to leave this place better than when we came.”
The Huskers all went their separate ways back in the spring, but Stivrins didn’t feel the need to be the person to hold others accountable. She said they’re all so self-motivated that everyone did what they needed to as much as their situation allowed during their time at home.
“Honestly, this team is closer than any other team that I’ve been on, and I know I say that every year, but this team is something special,” Stivrins said.
The Huskers returned to campus in June and began voluntary workouts. Preseason practice started on Aug. 5 and Cook told his players those practices were some of the best he’s seen over the last four or five years. Then the Big Ten dropped a bombshell on the college sports world, canceling the fall sports season with the hopes of playing in the spring. Suddenly, everything the Huskers were working for was off the table.
“It’s been kind of crazy, and none of this was to be expected for sure, but I think that something that this team is really good about and something that we’ve worked so hard for is, even in games we take everything point-by-point and right now, as I say to them, we just need to take it day by day,” Stivrins said. “Our team is really good about staying present, and that’s something that we work a lot on with mindfulness and stuff like that.
“Honestly, we’re just doing it the best we can, day by day, to make sure we’ll be where we need to be for tomorrow. I don’t think this team is getting too stressed out about what-ifs and the what-might-bes. We’re just really, really good about staying present. I really think that’s super beneficial, even in other aspects of life. There’s nothing good that comes from worrying about what’s going to happen in the future or what happened in the past. I think it’s a very mature mindset for a young group of girls to have to just be able to take this whole situation day-by-day.”
Stivrins arrived in Lincoln as a highly touted recruit who wasn’t ready to handle the physicality of the Big Ten, and she’s turned herself into one of the best athletes assistant coach Jaylen Reyes has ever been around. She started off as a typical, immature college student and has grown into the kind of leader coaches and teammates rave about. She has become the face of Nebraska volleyball.
“I think it’s something that I didn’t realize I always wanted and now that I have it, I’m super grateful,” Stivrins said. “Had I not been a captain, I don’t think I would have made such growth in my personal life. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with that, and that really forced me to grow up, and I’m really, really proud of the person that I am now. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of things that I need to work on, but I think that me being named a captain has really pushed me to be the best that I can be, and it’s really forced me to grow.”
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.