As good as Mikaela Foecke is and was — and she’s phenomenal — it took her until her third season at Nebraska to learn how to play all six rotations. Jazz Sweet, a top-15 national recruit coming out of high school, is still trying to make that transition during her junior season and isn’t quite there. Annika Albrecht had a knack for defense and passing when she arrived, but it wasn't until her senior year that she become a full-time, consistently productive front-row attacker as well.
The last outside hitter to play all six rotations right from the jump was Kadie Rolfzen. John Cook has a high standard for what it takes to play all the way around at Nebraska, and that is what true freshman Madi Kubik is doing right now for the Huskers.
To play in the back row, players have to be sound in serve receive and passing, otherwise they’re going to be targeted mercilessly by the other team.
“Here’s an analogy for you,” Cook said. “We radar gun serves. They’re serving from the end line, so it’s 30 feet to get to the net and about another 20 feet to get to the passer, so we’re looking at 50 feet. Those serves are going between 37 and 43 miles an hour. So stand in the road out there, get a car coming and 50 feet away you have to make a decision where you’re going to go to get out of the way. That’s what you have to do. In high school, they’re not serving that hard.”
So far this season, Kubik has been targeted nearly twice as much as any other Husker (138 times in 26 sets) and has committed a team-high 11 errors, which equals out to a .920 reception percentage. Lexi Sun is at .883 this season with nine errors on 77 receptions. Last season, Foecke led the team in receptions and posted a .955 reception rate.
The West Des Moines, Iowa, native has been thrown into the fire and is learning as she goes.
In the first weekend, Kubik started but after a few rotations Cook subbed sophomore Capri Davis in for Kubik in the front row and continued with that tandem throughout the Husker Invitational. Kubik posted 10 kills and three errors on 25 swings plus 15 digs in her first two matches.
Davis suffered a strained abdominal and was unavailable the next two weekends, which meant Kubik was suddenly thrust into the full-time six-rotation role alongside Sun. She was up-and-down that first weekend, recording 24 kills but committing 10 errors on 88 swings in two matches. She added 29 digs.
“She did great,” Cook said. “I thought she was really solid. She got a lot of out-of-system sets because we were out of system a lot, so that’s why she had so many sets. We were just stuck in those rotations. But she got an ace in the fifth game [against San Diego]; that’s always great to see from a freshman. I think she had a big kill in the fifth game. Madi is a freshman and she’s learning how to compete against these teams, especially on the road. That’s what that weekend was about.”
Kubik continued to play six rotations in the Ameritas Players Challenge last weekend, putting up hitting lines of 9-3-22 (.273), 7-5-27 (.074) and 8-3-24 (.208) and totaling 27 digs.
Against No. 2 Stanford on Wednesday, Kubik got a taste of big-time volleyball. She led the Huskers with 46 sets, producing 14 kills but committing 10 errors for a .087 hitting percentage. Nobody else on the team had more than 28 sets or nine kills. Early on, Kubik tried to tip the ball over the Stanford block and the Cardinal dug it every time, and as the match went on she learned and grew more aggressive with her swings.
“I loved how Madi competed,” Cook said. “She was aggressive. She ended up making a lot of errors but I thought she played her best match. I loved how she served and she was taking big swings tonight, really big swings. That’s a really good breakthrough for her I think. I think she’ll gain a lot of confidence from this tonight.”
The Huskers didn’t have the success they were hoping for, but sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said she was impressed with Kubik’s approach as well.
“This is the Madi that we’ve seen in practice and she just went after it tonight,” Hames said. “I thought that was awesome. We kind of went into it like ‘Hey, we need to go after this, we need to be fearless, and I thought she did that tonight and it really showed.”
Kubik called the atmosphere “super fun.”
“Coach talks about it a lot how he thought in our huddles we just looked like we were playing for each other and I think he could really feel that and on the court, we were trusting each other,” Kubik said. “It was a really fun environment to play in.”
Kubik said she didn’t really have any idea what her role might look like this season when she first arrived and began practice. She was just excited about the opportunity to compete for a six-rotation role. However, Cook said that was what he recruited her to do.
For all its ups and downs on the court, Kubik said the first month of the season has “been a lot of fun.”
“It’s really exciting,” Kubik said. “It’s really nice to have the best teammates because it makes it easy to go out there and trust that they have your back, however you play or whatever is going on in the game, that we can always look to each other and feel like everything’s going to be OK.”
As the Huskers head into Big Ten play, Kubik is going to have to bump that reception percentage up a bit. She’s going to have to improve her hitting percentage (.183) as well. But she’s shown flashes of the talent that led to her being ranked fourth nationally in the 2019 class and considering the paths taken by the likes of Foecke, Albrecht and Sweet, it’s hard to say she’s anything but ahead of schedule.
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.