Preseason practice tipped off this week for Amy Williams and the Huskers, but one member of the team isn’t taking part.
Freshman center Maggie Mendelson has other business this week and will continue to do so until the end of the volleyball season.
“It’s been kind of weird,” Mendelson said. “They’ve all been been in practice, sending me videos and stuff. It’s kind of sad that I’m not there, but I’m excited to be here.”
The dual-sport athlete is currently playing a key role in No. 3 Nebraska’s 6-2 rotation. She’ll report to Williams and the basketball program once the volleyball season is over, though she won’t be a complete stranger after logging some practice reps during the summer when she first arrived on campus.
“Excited to be in the crowd just cheering for her,” Williams said. “What a stud she is. It’s just so fun to watch her having fun out there and excelling as a 17-year-old on the court with the No. 3 team in the nation. It’s been fun. We’re really supporting her right now in her role with our volleyball team. We enjoyed training with her during the month of June. She arrived to campus in June and trained with women’s basketball during that month, so we were able to have her kind of learn some of the basics of of our system and scheme so that when she does report back to the women’s basketball team, it’s not all brand new and foreign to her.”
The 6-foot-5 Mendelson was originally in the 2023 class but graduated from Fremont High School in Ogden, Utah, a year early to enroll at Nebraska. PrepVolleyball.com ranked her fourth nationally in 2022 after her reclassification, and ESPN had her ranked 32nd nationally in basketball.
“You guys can see when you watch her on the volleyball court right now, she’s just an incredible athlete, just very bouncy and springy and has great timing and is so coachable, so coachable,” Williams said. “You kind of tell her one time and she adjusts her footwork and things. So we’re very excited. We think she’ll give us a really strong push once she is able to play in the national championship with our volleyball team and then have a little bit of time to recover her body. But then once she reports back to women’s basketball, we’ll be welcoming her with open arms.”
While Williams is giving Mendelson space to focus her attention on volleyball, the freshman is still in frequent contact with her teammates and coaches.
“She rooms with Callin Hake, one of our other freshmen, as well as a couple other volleyball players, and so they’re constantly in communication,” Williams said. “She gets the best of both worlds. She gets to be a part of two really cool teams that are tight and sometimes is hanging out with the basketball girls watching ‘The Bachelorette’ and sometimes hanging out with the volleyball team and hosting recruits. She’s just been able to find a way to acclimate herself with both teams and right now, we touch base with her, but we’re really allowing her to keep her focus on just helping that team that she’s a part of right now win and move forward.”
Balancing school and two different sports is nothing new for Mendelson. She called it a puzzle trying to make time for everything, but she has somehow always found a way to do so.
“My academic advisors are really helpful, getting me a good schedule, and then my coaches know that school comes first,” Mendelson said. “And so they’ve been really good about giving me time to work on school and sports.”
To keep her skills on the hardwood sharp throughout the volleyball season, Mendelson is having a weekly Wednesday night practice with her coaches, which started this week.
Mendelson arrived on campus in the summer, practiced with the basketball team in June and then left to compete with the United States U19 national volleyball team in July. She had to play some catch-up once she rejoined the Huskers and competed for a starting middle blocker spot early in the season. Fellow freshman Bekka Allick won that job, but an injury to Ally Batenhorst opened the door for Mendelson to see the floor in a new position: opposite hitter.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity that the coaches have given me,” Mendelson said. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind, starting pretty fast, but I’m just grateful to be here and grateful that they have given me these opportunities.”
Mendelson had about a week to prepare to play on the right side before Cook threw her into the fire. She played both middle and opposite for her club team, so she had that experience to fall back on, but playing at the pin in the Big Ten is an entirely different beast.
“It’s a lot different than high school,” Mendelson said. “Their outsides are way bigger, swinging a lot harder. So it’s definitely been a learning adjustment. The new blocking system that they have out there for me is going to work and I just need to learn how to do it.”
Mendelson started one match at middle blocker on the first day of the season and she’s played as the second opposite hitter behind Whitney Lauenstein in Nebraska’s 6-2 rotation in the team’s last five matches.
“She just has a great mindset,” Coach John Cook said. “She’s a great competitor. I just looked at our stats after 20 points; she plays her best volleyball after 20 points if you look at her stats. She’s still young, but we’ve thrown her into kind of a new spot. She doesn’t care. She wants to play and she competes. That’s her gift, she’s a great competitor. If you’re going to do two sports, you better love competition.”
On a scale of zero to 10, Mendelson ranked herself an 11 when it comes to competitiveness, backing up Cook’s description of her.
“I’m really competitive,” Mendelson said. “I feel like you have to be to be able to play at this level and against all these great teams that we’re playing. I don’t know, I’m almost a little too competitive, but I would say it’s a good thing.”
Mendelson said her desire to come through for her teammates and the knowledge that her teammates feel the same way for her allows her to remain calm in big moments, such as the set-point rally against Ohio State where she notched a kill to send the match to a fifth game. While she remained stoic during the action, she showed plenty of emotion after the point.
“To be honest, we were out of subs, so I was going to have to serve,” Mendelson said about her reaction. “But that was probably a little bit of the passion because I just knew that if we got to five we were going to win the game because we play tight, we play together and we show up in big moments.”
Mendelson is only averaging 1.14 kills per set on .107 hitting and 0.81 blocks per set through her first six matches, but Cook said he’s seen plenty of growth from her throughout the season.
“It’s just getting comfortable with the role we’ve created for her and understanding going against these great hitters and blocking them,” Cook said. “We’re still trying to figure out how to get her a few more kills. We made some adjustments this weekend and I think it helped, but you just don’t change your golf shot in one day and go out and shoot 10 strokes better.”
Basketball will remain on the back burner for Mendelson for the next couple months (and potentially longer depending on how deep of a tournament run the Huskers make in December), but Williams is more than happy to wait her turn with the 6-foot-5 freshman.
This is a fairly rare situation, but Mendelson, her coaches and her academic advisors have all worked together to put the puzzle pieces in place to allow Mendelson to succeed on and off the court(s).