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Nebraska Volleyball Notebook: 2022 Husker Invitational

September 04, 2022

No. 2 Nebraska improved to 5-0 with its fourth and fifth sweeps of the season at the Husker Invitational. The Huskers beat Loyola Marymount on Thursday then took down Mississippi on Saturday.

Though Nebraska didn’t drop a set during the tournament, there was plenty of intrigue as the Huskers welcomed back one of their own and continued to experiment with their lineup.

Homecoming

After spending three seasons as an assistant on John Cook’s coaching staff, Kayla Banwarth set off in 2019 to run her own program at Mississippi. Less than three years later, she made her return to Lincoln with her new team in tow to compete in the Husker Invitational.

Ole Miss faced Loyola Marymount on Friday then took on Banwarth’s old team on Saturday night in front of a packed Devaney Center.

“Just really, really grateful to be here,” Banwarth said after the match against Nebraska. “As always, feeling an enormous amount of gratitude for Husker nation, and the welcome that me and my team received. So thanks to everyone for being so gracious to us while we’ve been here.”

Nebraska fans showed their respect for the former Husker player and coach with an extra loud ovation when the public address announcer called her name during team introductions prior to the match on Saturday. 

“It was emotional, and I didn’t think it was going to be emotional,” Banwarth said. “I spent seven years of my life here, so to be back and to be welcomed in that way, it was was pretty special for me.”

The Rebels didn’t get the result they were likely hoping for in either match as they fell in three sets to both the Lions and Huskers, but they certainly pushed Nebraska on Saturday and Banwarth said she was proud of her team’s effort.

“That was fun,” Banwarth said. “My girls had a blast. And I know 0-3 is sometimes not very fun, but I’m happy when I see my girls competing hard and going toe-to-toe against Nebraska. I have no complaints. I’m proud of the way they battled, I’m proud of the way they competed, I’m proud of the way that they got better as the match went on and I thought Nebraska had to make really good plays to beat us in sets two and three. So I’m happy as a coach and it was a fun match.”

While the Huskers blew out the Rebels in the first set, Banwarth’s team bounced back and gave the Huskers all they could handle in sets two and three. Banwarth’s familiarity with her mentor, who she caught up with before and after the match, perhaps played into that.

“I know a lot about how Coach Cook wants to play volleyball, so I tried to play into some of that stuff,” Banwarth said. “I know they like to go high line out of system. I know they like to tool the block in certain situations. So we tried to be pretty strategic about where we put our defenders.”

Cook was glad to see the reception for his protégé, one of many coaching their own programs across the country (he’ll face another next week when Tyler Hildebrand brings his Long Beach State team to Lincoln).

“Our fans are the best,” Cook said. “They also gave Kalynn Meyer’s little sister [Shayla Meyer] a nice ovation. Of course, Kayla got a great ovation and I think it’s a big deal that she came back here. I think it meant a lot to her. I saw her this afternoon just walking around, looking at everything and just reminiscing. So it’s cool. She put her heart and soul in as a player here and then won a national championship with us, and so she’s got a lot of good memories. The other thing, I think for her team that she’s coaching to see that, that’s pretty cool. That isn’t happening anywhere else, and for that those kids to see that, how much our fans respect her and care about her, that has to mean a lot to those players.”

Saturday was a special moment for Banwarth and Cook both, but now Banwarth’s attention shifts back to trying to lead her team to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. The Rebels have started 0-4 this year, but three of those losses have come to top-20 teams.

A New Look

The story of the Invitational for the Huskers was the shift to a 6-2 offense, a system that utilizes two setters. I’ve been covering this program since 2015, and Cook has played exclusively a 5-1 (a one-setter offense) the entire time outside of the first weekend of the 2021 season when Nicklin Hames missed a couple of matches. Cook himself even said after Nebraska’s win over Tulsa last week that he wasn’t considering running a 6-2.

He changed his mind sometime between that press conference on Friday night and the team’s practice on Monday, however, as the team began prepping to play a 6-2. 

“It’s something we’ve talked about,” Cook said after Nebraska ran the 6-2 against Loyola Marymount. “I feel like when you run a 5-1 your setter has to be really good and find ways to get your hitters kills. Kennedi [Orr] is still figuring that out. Of course, Nicklin [Hames] has got four years of experience and Anni [Evans] is a very good setter. I want to get these outside hitters on the court, so it gets gets Ally [Batenhorst] out there and Lindsay [Krause], and so we wanted to look at it and see, so we spent a couple of days working on it. There are disadvantages to everything you do, so you’ve got to pick and choose and my job is to figure out our best lineup that gives us the best chance to win.”

After alternating between Orr and Evans in a 5-1 during the first weekend, Cook chose to start Hames at setter against the Lions with Evans serving as the second setter who rotated in off the bench.

“I just feel like they’ve been setting really well,” Cook said. “We’ve been still training Nicklin [at setter] and they’re just a little more comfortable, I think, in running a 6-2. So I just felt like kind of going with experience there because it is a lot to change. It creates all kinds of new lineups and new placement and new people next to each other. Those two guys can handle it.” 

In a 6-2, the setter plays three rotations in the back row then subs out instead of moving to the front row, and then the second setter subs into the back row. It allows the team to keep three big hitters (either middles or pins) in the front row at all times, but also can make it difficult for the setters to get into a rhythm with all the subbing.

“That’s another reason, in a 5-1 the setter’s out there all the time; in a 6-2, you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out,” Cook said. “Anni’s used to that; her whole career here she’s been a sub that’s come in. We’ve let her go through the back row before. And Nicklin, I think, is at a point that she can handle anything. Setters like to be in a rhythm and they have to mentally kind of hang in there until their turn comes to go back in.”

Cook ran a 6-2 and started Hames again in Saturday’s win over Ole Miss, but he gave Orr first crack at being the second setter. However, she struggled to find consistency with her sets and Cook turned to Evans again early in he third quarter.

The experiment produced positive results as the Huskers hit .363 agains the Lions and .330 against the Rebels.

“I think I think we handled it really well,” Cook said. “They do a pretty good job. We’ve only played two matches in it, but we hit great numbers. We hit those numbers, you’ve got a really good chance to win.”

The change to a 6-2 wasn’t all about the setter position, though. Cook was having a difficult time choosing which two of the three sophomores pins to play with senior Madi Kubik, and a 6-2 allows him to play all four of them. Kubik didn’t miss a beat with the change, earning tournament MVP honors while averaging 3.5 kills per set on .455 hitting.

“When we run 6-2, we have a lot of opportunity for all of our hitters,” Kubik said. “And I think with 5-1s, because most of our middles don’t do a ton of behind stuff [like slides], I think 6-2 makes a little bit more sense in terms of that. It does create a little bit wonky serve receive patterns a little bit, so we’re kind of still working through that.”

Whitney Lauenstein continued her strong play as well within the new system as she hit .350 or better in both matches.

Cook did commit to what kind of system he wanted to run longterm, but only two weeks remain in the nonconference season before Big Ten play begins, and three of those four nonconference matches are against top-20 teams. The Huskers will have to decide quickly what kind of team they want to be.

“The ante keeps going up,” Cook said. “So next week, there’s more chips on the table. We’ve got two huge matches next week and then the ante goes up the following week, and then we start the Big Ten. So we’ve got to keep rising up.”

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