Twenty-eight student-athletes traveled to Chicago to represent their teams at Big Ten Media Days, and more than half of them were seniors.
Nebraska was one of just three teams that didn’t send a senior to the event. Junior captains Lexi Rodriguez and Merritt Beason accompanied Coach John Cook to Chicago. Michigan State also sent two juniors while Rutgers sent two sophomores.
In total, three fifth-year players, 14 seniors, seven juniors and four sophomores made up the representatives of the event in its second year. Looking beyond just Media Days, Nebraska is the only Big Ten team set to enter the 2023 season without a senior on its roster, and 11 of the other teams will have at least one super senior.
Despite returning six players with starting experience, Nebraska will likely be one of the younger teams in the conference next season, though junior captain Lexi Rodriguez doesn’t see that as a bad thing.
“If we had a fifth year, great, but at the end of the day, we’re a very young team and I think there are a lot of pros to that, actually,” Rodriguez said. “I think when you’re younger, there’s not really any expectations and you can kind of just your best game every single night. No one knows what you have to bring to the table, and so I think it’s going to be kind of one of our strengths that there’s no pressure that a fifth-year senior has to play how they’ve been playing for the past four years. We’re a new team, we’re young, and I genuinely I think with just how competitive everyone is, we’re not going to have much of a problem with not having a fifth year or old players,”
Each member of Nebraska’s highly-regarded 2023 recruiting class has shown they’re capable of making an early impact throughout the spring and summer, and competition for playing time has been and will continue to be fierce. Harper Murray, Bergen Reilly and Andi Jackson will likely be in the mix for a starting spot during preseason camp, while Laney Choboy will likely see the court as a defensive specialist sub.
“I tell our players two things … One, volleyball doesn’t know how old you are,” Cook said. “So the game does not know how old you are. The second thing is if a dog is going to bite, it’s going to bite as a pup, so these guys need to be ready to come out and get after it. I think they have the mindset. Get this, Maggie Mendelson is the youngest player on our team. She’s already been here for a year. It’s nuts, but we’re going to be young and aggressive and these guys are going to be fearless. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
With no seniors on the roster, the junior class has had to fill that leadership void, led by the two captains in Rodriguez and Beason who have embraced that role.
“It’s an honor for sure to be chosen to be a leader of this team … Our entire team as a whole is a really fun group of girls to lead,” Beason said. “We all bring tons of experiences, tons of knowledge and things of that sort. So it could have been anyone picked as captains from the freshmen to the juniors; it could have been anyone and I don’t think any of us would have been surprised just because our entire team is full of natural leaders. So it just makes it even more special for us to be the leaders but also it makes it more fun for our entire team to be able to help and provide input and things of that sort.”
Rodriguez and Beason aren’t the only upperclassmen on the team; however. Fellow juniors Lindsay Krause, Ally Batenhorst and Kennedi Orr have also shouldered some of the leadership burden as they each look o take the next step in their careers on and off the court.
“I think Merritt said it great: she’s leading a group of leaders and it’s a tremendous group,” Cook said. “I think almost anybody on our team could or will be a captain at some point. And those guys are going to be the older players on our team and have to show these guys, which they’ve been doing all summer and in Brazil, what it’s going to take. I think they’ve done a tremendous job and they’ve been through the worst, and so they’re the ones that, like I said, are going to have to show the way.”
Though the team is young in number, its old in experience in many ways, and the entire freshman class enrolling for the beach and spring indoor seasons leading up to the team’s trip to Brazil has the Huskers far ahead of where they would normally be at this point in the calendar.
“The Brazil trip definitely put us ahead of where we normally are,” Rodriguez said. “Usually, just when you’re kind of doing open gyms all summer long and you’re not really playing anyone you’re not competing very much, it can get kind of hard to stay focused and and be determined to get better for the season. But I think since we had that Brazil trip and it was right around the corner, it doesn’t really feel like much time has went by since we were in Brazil. So I think that really did help us just stay focused and on the track of where we want to be in December.”
Cook said the Brazil trip was particularly valuable for the freshmen who got aa preview of what it’s like to play at the college level.
“It’s huge, especially with five new players,” Cook said. “Merritt’s been through big matches, but five new players, for them to go through that and experience that, it gives me a lot of confidence that these freshmen are going to be able to play.”
Of the 23 super seniors on Big Ten rosters, five of them played for a different Big Ten team last season. Here were a handful of other intra-conference transfers as well including a pair of underclassmen that landed on the preseason-All-Big Ten team. While Nebraska benefitted from an intra-conference transfer last year with Kaitlyn Hord, Cook said he’s not a fan of the trend.
“The portal is great and it provides, I guess, opportunities,” Cook said. “I I think there are some negatives to it as well. It bothers me when somebody transfers within the conference. I feel like you invest all that time and energy and then they turn around and go to another team that you’re going to play against, potentially twice. So as an old school coach, that part bothers me. I don’t like it.”
Ohio State standout setter Mac Podraza is now at Penn State. Her teammate, libero Kylie Murr, will play for Minnesota this season. Prolific Northwestern pin-hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara is now at Wisconsin. All three are preseason All-Big Ten picks, and Rodriguez said it’s going to be a little strange seeing them sporting different colors out on the court.
“I’m thinking of some of them and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that would be weird,’ Rodriguez said. “But it is what it is, still playing them, still going to be fun, still going to be mad if they get a kill on me. But yeah, seeing them in a different jersey will be weird.”
Nebraska doesn’t have any seniors — super or otherwise — and it doesn’t have any intra-conference transfers, but the Huskers feel good about where they are heading into 2023 and are looking forward to chasing another conference title.