No. 1 Nebraska opened the season with a 3-0 showing at the Americas Players Challenge, sweeping Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tulsa and Pepperdine.
“We got three wins,” Coach John Cook said. “We played some really good volleyball. We’ve got to learn how to work through nerves now and continue to build on that. Our preseason is two weeks, so it’s hard. Look at all the teams that lost; pretty much half the top 25 went down this weekend. The first weekend is always wild because everybody has the same amount of time and practice and it’s hard to get going and take advantage of what you can do well early.”
Everyone on the roster saw the court at one point or another, and the three matches offered at least a bit of clarity as to what the 2022 Huskers are going to look like.
Saturday night’s match turned into the de facto championship game of the tournament as Nebraska and Pepperdine both went 2-0 on Friday, but the meeting between the two teams was special for another reason as well. It served as a reunion for the Hames sisters.
Kayleigh Hames, Nicklin Hames’ younger sister, is a senior defensive specialist for Pepperdine. For the first time since the state championship match during Nicklin’s senior year of high school, the two shared the same court on Saturday night.
“Obviously we’ve grown up playing together, competing against each other,” Nicklin said. “We’ve always had this competitive nature in our family and it’s her last year too, her senior year. So just for us to be able to have this moment and we can always look back on it. It was a really cool experience for my family as well. They got to see both of us play at once and you don’t get a lot of that because they’re in California and we’re here, so just to have us all together in one gym is pretty cool.”
The sisters had eight or nine family members in the crowd including their parents, though Nicklin was a little frustrated when she saw most of them wearing blue for Pepperdine, though she grudgingly acknowledged it made sense since there was plenty of red filling the rest of the building.
During player introductions prior to the match, the Devaney Center crowd gave Kayleigh a special ovation, which brought Teras to Nicklin’s eyes.
“This place is just so special to me and for them to cheer for her like that, that was really cool,” Nicklin said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment and I think it’ll probably still bring tears my eyes every time I think about it.”
Cook said the fans at the Devaney Center made the moment even more memorable for the Hames family.
“Our fans are the best,” Cook said. “Nicklin’s mom and dad were here and how do you think that makes them feel that she gets that kind of reception and everybody knows that she’s Nicklin sister? It’s pretty special, something she’ll remember. I noticed when they were doing Red Kingdom, she was singing it. I was looking over there trying to figure out what rotation they were going to start and she’s singing the words to Red Kingdom. So she’s bleeding a little Husker.”
Big sister got the better of this battle both on the scoreboard and in the state sheet (Nicklin had 12 digs to Kayleigh’s seven), but Saturday night was about a lot more than volleyball.
Strength in Numbers
Three of Nebraska’s four true freshmen saw the court in the first match, and the fourth made her debut in following match. Cook gave all 14 players on the roster a chance to play in the first two matches, and each of them made an impact in one way or another.
“It’s a long season,” Cook said. “We’re going to be in a lot of tough matches and we’ve got to have depth and people that can come in, because you’ve just got to have that in the Big Ten conference. And they’ve got to feel confident coming in. Even Hayden [Kubik] got in; she probably didn’t think she was going to play today, and she made some really nice plays, took a couple of really nice swings. Usually you gauge their confidence and how comfortable they are by the youngest players and the least experienced and so that was a great sign for us and for her.”
The younger Kubik made her debut in the closing moments of the first match, and she made the most of her playing time by notching the match-point kill against Corpus Christi on her first career swing.
In the first match, Cook opted for a lineup including Madi Kubik and Lindsay Krause at outside hitter, Whitney Lauenstein at opposite hitter, Kaitlyn Hord and Bekka Allick at middle blocker, Kennedi Orr at setter and Lexi Rodriguez at libero.
He changed it up for match two, inserting Ally Batenhorst for Krause, Maggie Mendelson for Allick and Anni Evans for Orr. The result was the same — a relatively easy sweep.
“It’s amazing,” Hord said. “We have no person on our bench who’s going to come out and hurt us. Anybody can come in and do amazing things. Like Hayden stepped in twice today and made great plays both times. I couldn’t be happier with our bench and the people that are out there.”
Pepperdine offered a stiffer test than the two teams Nebraska played on Friday, and Cook decided to go back to the first starting lineup, which appears to be the the main group — for now.
“Based on the last two weeks, Lindsay has kind of earned that spot and Bekka has earned that spot,” Cook said. “Kennedi gives us the potential to play at the highest level. You can see what she can do at the net. She’s a great blocker. For the last four years, we’ve had to deal with a lot of big, physical hitters going over Nicklin, and they don’t go over Kennedi.”
As expected, Hames settled into the right back defensive specialist role off the bench and played well at her new position. She averaged 3.44 digs per set and led the team with three aces without recording a service error.
Only seven Huskers saw action in all three matches, and perhaps the most surprising of them was walk-on freshman Maisie Boesiger, the converted setter out of Norris who looks to have earned a role as a serving specialist early on.
“She did great,” fellow walk-on Evans said. “She really trusts it. She has a crazy good serve and I think we all saw that, so I was really proud of her for going out there and sticking it.”
End of an Era
If Cook has any say (and he obviously does as the head coach), Friday was the final time Nebraska will play two matches in one day during a nonconference tournament.
Because of a change going into effect, Division I schools now have a bigger window in which to play their matches, meaning they won’t have to squeeze multiple matches into a single day. Cook said he’s glad to see that become a thing of the past.
“I’ve got to give a shoutout to our fans,” Cook said on Friday night. “They packed this place twice today. That’s a lot. I don’t know how many people were at both matches or if people are giving away their tickets, but there’s no other place doing that in the country. Now, this tournament, we would schedule it over three days so it would be a night match every night. It’ll be easier for people to get here, they can make an evening out of it, so it’ll just be way better. So that’s what we’ll work towards.”
The Huskers will host one more nonconference tournament next week, but it will be a three-team event. Nebraska will face Loyola Marymount on Thursday and Ole Miss on Saturday, with the Lions and Rebels facing off on Friday night.
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.