Coach John Cook hasn’t had his full team on campus for very long, but the Huskers are already off to Asia to learn more about themselves on and off the court. Before they left, however, the newcomers caught Cook’s eye during practice and workouts.
“I’m still learning a lot because we just got everybody here, but I’m really, really impressed with our freshman class,” Cook said. “They were ranked second and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what are these people thinking?’ And now that they’re here, I’m seeing some really good things form these freshmen. They’ve all come in here and are doing a really good job.”
Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class includes six players: outside hitter Madi Kubik (PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 4 recruit), outside hitter Riley Zuhn (No. 32), libero Kenzie Knuckles (No. 37) and setter Nicole Drewnick (reclassified up from 2020) along with a pair of in-state walk-ons in middle blocker Fallon Stutheit (Johnson-Brock) and defensive specialist Emma Gabel (Lincoln Pius X).
Kubik and Knuckles got to campus in January as early enrollees and were able to go through the full spring schedule including beach play and the spring exhibition against Colorado State in McCook.
“They came in here and did not flinch,” Cook said. “They did not act like freshmen. They went to McCook and both played great and they’ve continued training really well. They remind me of what Mikaela [Foecke] had; they have this deep inner confidence, and Mikaela had that as a freshman, Kenzie Maloney had that as a freshman. These guys have it, and that’s why we recruited them.”
The Huskers did not have an exhibition match prior to last season, in part because they did not even have an eligible setter on campus after Kelly Hunter’s graduation and Hunter Atherton’s decision to transfer and before Nicklin Hames made it to campus. This year, however, the Huskers took on a 2018 NCAA Tournament team in Colorado State and they beat the Rams in four sets in front of a crowd of 1,750 at the Graff Events Center in McCook on April 20.
“In McCook, our hosts were amazing, just die-hard volleyball fans and they treated us like royalty when we were there,” said Hames, a sophomore setter. “So I think it was a good experience for the new girls to kind of get a taste of that because that’s how it is everywhere we go — our fans are the best in the nation. For them to come in and get a chance to play and just learn our culture and how we play Nebraska volleyball was pretty good for them.”
Kubik finished with 15 kills and four aces in the exhibition match.
“Madi is super confident and she has really good ball control and she’s really level-headed and steady,” Hames said. “I feel like she’ll be a good asset for this team for sure.”
Knuckles also played the whole match as the team’s libero as she is looking to fill the big shoes left by the departure of another libero named Kenzie.
Cook said he’s looking to learn much more about his newcomers during the 17-day trip through Japan and China.
“As Darrell Royal used to say, ‘If a dog’s going to bite, it’s going to bite as a pup,’” Cook said. “So if these guys are going to be players, they’re going to show us early in their careers that they can be players.”
With six true freshman, 10 underclassmen in total and no seniors on the 2019 roster, Cook said this might be the youngest team he’s had. The Huskers lost their two captains to graduation in Foecke and Maloney, and leadership roles are up for grabs.
“The two that I’ve been working with are Lauren [Stivrins] and Nicklin,” Cook said. “We haven’t named them captains yet, but we’ve been working on it. This is going to be their opportunity to prove that they can lead this team. They’re going to have 17 days to prove that.”
Stivrins said she’s excited about tackling her new role.
“I think we’re both ready,” the junior middle blocker said. “We’ve worked a lot with our sports psychs and we met with our coaches a bunch in the spring. It’s not hard being a leader with this team; this team doesn’t need that much leadership. I feel like everyone is just exactly where they need to be an everyone is working hard.”
The duo had some pretty good role models to learn from last season. Cook has said he was a little nervous about Foecke and Maloney taking over as leaders following the departure of three-year captain Hunter, but they embraced and grew into that responsibility and led the Huskers right back to the national championship game.
“We had great examples last year with Mikaela and Kenzie and so they really taught us how to get in that role and we kind of just like doing what they’re doing and like she said, this team’s really not that hard to lead,” Hames said.
The 10 returning Huskers don’t need to look to Stivrins and Hames for motivation; they’ve already got that part covered on their own after coming up a few points short against Stanford in the 2018 title match.
“It sucked, and as much as I’d love to forget that I think it’s totally driven this team and we’re competing harder than we ever had,” Stivrins told the media in the team’s lounge. “Just sitting and watching a practice, it’s completely different and everyone’s attitudes have completely shifted because we know we have to work that much harder to be that much better because no one wants to feel that again. We definitely use it as motivation; it’s right up there on that wall — that’s the picture of Stanford beating us and they’re celebrating and we’re still huddled tight. We’re going to take that and learn from it and be that much better.”
Though the Huskers lost two key pieces from the team that nearly went all the way next season, expectations aren’t changing in that locker room. A national championship is always the goal for the Nebraska volleyball team.
“Once you’re there, you just want to be back,” Hames said. “I think it’s going to be in the back of our minds, like how it felt last year, and we all want to be back in that moment and prove ourselves and be three points better. Every day in the gym we talk about how we lost those three points and I think we’re really going to push this season to get back to that.”
The journey back to the sport’s biggest stage begins on Monday as the Huskers begin their overseas training in Osaka, Japan, ahead of their first two exhibition matches against two-time defending Japanese league champion Hisamitsu Springs on Tuesday and Wednesday.
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.