For the first time during the John Cook era in Lincoln, the Nebraska volleyball team is heading into the season without a single senior on the roster. With that in mind, Cook had to spend a little extra time identifying who the replacements for Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney would be as team leaders.
He chose junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames to serve as captains this season.
“I recognized that we didn’t have seniors, so we’re going to have to go out and find ways to develop captains,” Cook said. “We started in January and I chose Nicklin and Lauren and we worked with them. It was a collaborative effort. We did a book study on a book called ‘Culture Code,’ so we started developing a leadership mindset and expectations for what a leader is in this program. We carried that into Asia this summer, gave them a lot of responsibility and threw it on them and they handled it really well. At the end of the Asia trip it was pretty obvious that they were going to be our captains.”
Though she’s not classified as a senior, Stivrins is the most senior player on the team as she redshirted her first season on campus and is heading into her fourth season at Nebraska.
“I’ve been here for quite some time and I’ve gotten to see some really great volleyball players and people come through this program,” Stivrins said. “To be recognized as one of those is really amazing. I’m super excited to see what this team can do this year and I’m excited to lead them with [Hames].”
Stivrins is coming off a season that saw her earn AVCA All-America and Big Ten first team honors and has always played with her heart on her sleeve. Now she’s working to channel that emotion into leadership.
“Lauren has been through the grind here,” Cook said. “She started off and didn’t play. She’s become an All-American. She works really hard. She improves all the time and I felt like her team really respects her because of that. She’s a competitor. I just thought the combination of those two would be good. We’ll find out. It’s also, I would say, it changes how Lauren sees herself. She was kind of just here having fun playing and now she, I think, feels a responsibility for Nebraska volleyball.”
As for Hames, she came in as a freshman and earned the starting setter job from day one, putting together a season that saw her named an AVCA All-America honorable mention and an All-Big Ten Freshman Team member.
“Any time you can have your setter be a captain it’s a huge advantage because they’re running the show,” Cook said. “As I tell our setters, they're driving the car and everybody’s along for the ride, so you want them in that leadership role. She got to watch Kelly Hunter for three years be in that position and do really well. You always try to have a setter be a captain. We try to recruit settlers that can be in that role.”
Hames called it an honor to be selected as a captain, a role for which she was groomed all throughout high school and during her freshman year in Lincoln.
“I’ve just kind of been how I am through my whole life,” Hames said. “Coach kind of talked to me about it at the end of my freshman season. When he told me I was kind of shocked and kind of nervous at first because I was so young and I hadn’t been in the program for so long, but my teammates have been super supportive about it and they all tell me all the time they trust me. It gives me a lot of confidence to be able to lead them and having Lauren by my side, she’s been here for a couple more years than I have and she’s one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever seen, so I have a lot more confidence now.”
Stivrins said it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the program when Cook named Hames a captain.
“She’s one of the hardest-working people in this program and she’s just so mature,” Stivrins said. “She holds herself and carries herself very well and I think a lot of people can look up to her. Even though she is so young, she acts wise beyond her years.”
One thing Nebraska’s new captains won’t have to spend much time on is motivation. The way last year’s season ended — a five-set loss to Stanford in the national championship game — has driven the team throughout the offseason and that fire is still there as the season is getting ready to begin.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that we don’t think about it,” Stivrins said. “We were so close. We’ve used it as motivation every single day when this team comes in. I’ve never been on a team that works as hard as these girls. I know we’ve said that in the past, but this year it’s different. Everyone is just so driven and so motivated and we want to play well for the person next to us. Even in lifting we go in there and it’s like a competition with the person next to you, like ‘Oh, you just lifted that? Well, I can do that too.’ Everyone is just trying to get that much better every single day and so it’s really cool to see. No one wants to experience that pain ever again so we’re going to work hard every single day to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Official practice begins on Saturday for the Huskers, and Stivrins shared some of the advice she’ll give to the six true freshmen on the team who are about to get a crash course on what Husker volleyball truly is.
“Next point mentality,” Sivrins said. “If you mess up, shake it off; there’s always going to be another ball. And not to let Coach Cook — because he likes to get on the newbies, he does — just to not take any of that personally, and he is there to make us better.”
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.