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Infusion of Youth Adding Competition — and Noise — to Nebraska’s Practice Gym

April 14, 2023

Fan excitement is high for Nebraska’s spring exhibition against Wichita State in Central City, as evidenced by the game selling out in less than an hour after tickets went on sale to the public on Monday morning.

However, the Huskers have a lot of work to do between now and the match on April 29. With a big group of newcomers including five freshmen that enrolled early plus a transfer, Coach John Cook and his staff are starting with the basics this spring.

“We’ve got six new players, so we still have not put in all of our drills yet,” Cook said. “We’re learning our drills, our terminology, the things that we teach. Every day I write in our practice plan that we’ve got to be teachers today, we’ve got to teach these guys what we need. I haven’t had to ask them to bring energy … They get after it and there’s energy and they compete.”

A lot of that energy has come from the newcomers, particularly the five freshmen: setter Bergen Reilly, outside hitter Harper Murray, opposite hitter Caroline Jurevicius, defensive specialist Laney Choboy and middle blocker Andi Jackson.

“It’s a very, very live group,” sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick said. “As you can tell, there’s a lot of friendly smack-talking going on. It’s a very, very feisty group … I think it’s just everybody’s natural, competitive nature. I think just with all of us that have been already in the program for a year or two, we have allowed them to feel really comfortable and I think that it kind of comes naturally when they play, and so they don’t really hold back anything.”

Cook said it doesn’t feel like they have six new players; they play like they’ve been together for a while, and the beach season certainly helped fast-track that connection. Of course, many of the players had begun to develop relationships before they even set foot on campus thanks to their paths crossing elsewhere, most notably the USA Volleyball program.

“I love them … I’ve known Laney since we were 15,” Allick said. “We played on my first ever USA volleyball team together. And then after that, I met Harper, Caroline. I got to just meet Andi here and she’s just always been such a light, just a great, great girl. And then obviously Maggie [Mendelson] with the USA. So I’ve already played some tough volleyball with these girls and I’ve got to get to know a little bit of their story, like their family, just their habits, just kind of who they are off the court. And so it just kind of feels like I’m playing with my best friends.”

Having all six newcomers on campus for the spring has been key for Nebraska, not only for the purpose of building chemistry, but also for helping both the returners and the newcomers to make strides on the court.

“It’s a huge advantage for us to have a full group because we’re doing a lot of teaching but we can get into some great six-on-six that’s very competitive,” Cook said. “We haven’t made a starting lineup yet. We mix them up every day, we mix up the setters every day and just want to get everybody comfortable and feel like they’re a part of this team and everybody can play.”

Nebraska has eight players returning from last year’s squad, but that only includes one setter in junior Kennedi Orr. She’ll compete with Reilly — ranked fourth in the 2023 class as the No. 1 setter by PrepVolleyball.com — for the starting setter job come the fall.

Orr was the top-ranked player in the country coming out of high school, but a torn ACL suffered during her senior season has had a major impact on her college career through her first two seasons at Nebraska. She enrolled in the spring of 2021 and rehabbed her knee within the program, then played during the first weekend of the 2021 season while an ankle injury sidelined Nicklin Hames.

Orr suffered a setback with her knee during the beach season in the spring of 2022, and although Cook said he was planning to give Orr the keys to the Husker car with Hames planning to change positions during her super senior season, things never seemed to click for the 6-foot setter from Eagan, Minnesota. Cook switched to a 6-2 two-setter offense after one weekend and Hames and walk-on Anni Evans ended up seeing more playing time than Orr did.

This spring, Orr chose not to participate in beach volleyball, instead spending that time focusing solely on indoor training and maintaining strength in her knee.

“We trained the heck out of her,” Cook said. “She was with me and Kelly [Hunter] a lot, and she got a lot of individual attention. So Kennedi is not going to say coaches don’t pay attention; she got a lot of individual attention. We worked really hard, she worked really hard. Even when we went to Hawaii, we took her with us because last year she couldn’t go. So we felt like it was hard when the whole team’s over there and she couldn’t go, and we even trained her over there almost daily. A friend of Jaylen [Reyes]’ has a really cool little gym and so we got to go over there and train her, so she got work and then she worked out with me every day. So life’s good for Kennedi Orr.”

Cook said Orr made “major” progress during their training sessions, which should serve her well as she competes with a talented youngster in Reilly who already has experience playing with the USA Volleyball senior national team. Reilly is just one of the freshmen already looking to make their mark on the program.

“They compete, and like I said, they’re not bashful,” Cook said. “They don’t care how old they are, who’s ahead of them; they’re competing. They want to play.”

That, in turn, is bringing out the best in the returners, creating a highly competitive practice environment despite outside competition still being so far away. Allick said the level of competition they’re facing in practice is huge and should carry over seamlessly to the season.

“What it makes me think of is [USA men’s volleyball setter] Micah Christenson, he had a Zoom call with a couple of our setters and he mentioned that the big moments in his actual live play, whether it’s the Olympics and all that other stuff, they’re not very big to him because he takes practice so seriously,” Allick said. “And it also makes the big moments a lot less scary, personally speaking. When I’m able to put that kind of pressure on myself — like if I get I don’t know how many more reps in practice just doing the same skill, and in a volleyball game, yeah, we’ll do a couple but it’s usually not the same rep over and over. And so just taking each of those reps seriously will help when I probably have to do it once or twice in games.”

The Huskers still have two more weeks of practice before they get the opportunity to show the progress they’ve made in front of 200-plus fans at the Bison Activity Dome in Central City, and you can bet their gym will remain just as loud and competitive as its been right up until match day thanks in part to the infusion of youth.

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