Nebraska didn’t even make it to the first weekend before the COVID-19 pandemic altered its schedule, but the Huskers still managed to play two matches in the season-opening Husker invitational — a sweep over Colgate on Friday and a 3-1 win over Kansas State on Saturday.
Trial By Fire
The Huskers lost their scheduled season opener because of COVID-19 issues within the Tulsa program, but outside of that the first weekend went about as well as Coach John Cook could have hoped.
Nebraska won easily on Friday night and Cook got a chance to get playing time for everyone who was healthy. He ran a 6-2 in the first two sets to get two setters and all four outside hitters on the court, then switched to a 5-1 in the third set to give his defensive specialists more playing time.
On Saturday, the young Huskers faced a stiffer test including their first real bit of on-court adversity, and they pushed through it to finish off the match in four sets and improve to 2-0.
“A match like this, I don’t know if we could script it any better, to come back, because this will give them a deep confidence that ‘Hey, no matter how bad it’s going, we can still pull it out,’” Cook said. “We got blown out in game three. I had a good feeling even if it went five we would win because I just trust Madi [Kubik] and Lexi [Sun] and the middles and Kenzie Knuckles that those guys were just find a way to will it. And they did in game four.”
Three freshmen (setter Kennedi Orr, opposite hitter Lindsay Krause, libero Lexi Rodriguez) started for the Huskers and a fourth (opposite hitter Whitney Lauenstein) saw extensive playing time.
“Those guys, they get after it,” Cook said. “It’s like that every day in practice. They’re aggressive, they take swings and they don’t back down. It’s what I’ve been seeing and it’s good to see it in a real game, and we saw last week in the Red-White. They’re fun to watch.”
Rodriguez led the Huskers with 36 digs in seven sets (5.14 per set), 16 more than second place, and she went a perfect 23-for-23 in serve receive. She made some spectacular defensive plays throughout the two matches, showcasing her quick reflexes and her ability to cover ground. What impressed Cook most about her debut, however, was her out-of-system setting as she recorded six assists against Colgate including a pinpoint back-set to the pin for a kill by Sun.
Outside of Rodriguez, the freshman who saw the most playing time was Krause. She showed the fans her powerful arm (2.57 kills per set) and ability to play all six rotations, but her aggression came at a cost as she also led the Huskers with 10 attack errors and hit just .167. She got off to a hot start against Kansas State with five kills and no errors in the first set but Cook said he saw her run into a wall as she had seven kills and seven errors in the last three sets.
“I thought she was playing great, but I could just see the wheels were spinning a little bit with her,” Cook said. “I think she made five straight errors, and she’s got to learn from that. Part of it might have been Kennedi’s sets; it’s hard for me to tell where I’m at, but she’s got to learn to deal if she gets a tough set and not just make an error. But she takes good swings and that kid is a competitor. I mean, she competes.
“But again, mentally, they’ve got to learn how to play at a high level for a long period of time and the only way you can do that is grind them in practice and get matches like this.”
Lauenstein had three kills and three errors on 13 swings in four sets. Outside hitter Ally Batenhorst and middle blocker Rylee Gray have both been a bit banged up recently and Cook decided to be cautious with them, so fans will have to wait for their debuts.
Setting the Table
Hames injuring her ankle in the Red-White Scrimmage meant Cook had to come up with a contingency plan at setter for this weekend. He decided to give walk-on sophomore Anni Evans the start against Colgate, but playing a 6-2 meant both setters got a chance to play.
Orr played the whole third set as Nebraska switched back to its normal 5-1 and that’s how they started the Kansas State match as well.
Orr notched a double-double in both matches despite splitting time, leading the Huskers with 7.3 assists per set and recording 2.9 digs per set (second on the time). However, Nebraska’s offense fell apart in set three and Cook said he saw Orr hit a wall, so he pulled her with Nebraska trailing 12-6 and gave Evans the chance to close out the match.
“We kept asking Kennedi how she was feeling,” Cook said. “Of course, she’s a warrior, so she was like ‘I feel good. I want to go.’ That last set to Lexi there, that was just a mindless set, so I knew she hit the wall.”
Last week’s Red-White Scrimmage was Orr’s first time playing a match in front of fans since she tore her ACL during her senior season of high school. She didn’t start practicing fully until a couple weeks ago.
“I just think it’s fatigue,” Cook said. “She hasn’t played in over a year. Last night we did 6-2 for two games so she just hasn’t been… Playing setter as a freshman is tough deal. That’s why there’s only been one setter ever as a freshman that started here and she’s sitting on the bench with me. I just think mentally, physically, she just hit the wall. But that’s why they call it a team, and that’s something Anni will remember the rest of her life, that comeback, because that’s a heck of a comeback. She set great. She was in the zone. Every set was perfect. I’d like to know our hitting percentage with her setting; it had to be astronomical.”
Evans led he Huskers to a 25-22 comeback win in the fourth to finish off the match after not playing at all in the first two sets.
“She’s been sitting for two hours and setters need rhythm, so it’s really hard,” Cook said. “But she really trusted it and she’s a tough kid and she’s a good little setter. We see that in practice but she executed in the game which is pretty cool. She got the EDMF belt after that match.”
Cook will be happy to get Nicklin Hames back in the lineup, but in the meantime Orr and Evans filled in admirably and led the Huskers to a pair of wins.
It Takes a Team
Nebraska’s two three-time captains, Hames and Lauren Stivrins, were both on the bench in street clothes this weekend while Kenzie Knuckles, the team’s third captain, moved to a different position and isn’t on the court as much as she was as the libero. That put the burden of on-court leadership to Nebraska’s other veterans who shared the court with three freshmen most of the match.
“I think each of us are trying to find where our role is as a leader,” Kubik said. “We have a lot of people that have experience playing in these big matches so they can offer that and encourage the younger players, and the more that they play in those big matches the better your experience gets. So I think we’re just kind of doing it live; we saw that in her gym a lot.”
Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey certainly led by example on Saturday, leading the Huskers with 13 kills on .632 hitting.
“I just try to bring positive energy in any situation, just encouraging if I can if I see someone’s having a hard time,” Caffey said. “Even just by example, playing free and just getting out there and showing what we all can do.”
One of Cook’s takeaways from this weekend was that he needs to find a way to get sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana on the court more.
“That kid, she had a heck of a weekend, and serving line, she willed us game four there,” Cook said on Saturday night.
The Huskers served eight aces in the two matches and Akana had four of them, two in each match. She served a couple of extended runs while she was on the court.
“She’s just developed into a great, great server,” Cook said. “I had her going on cross-court, she was running points, and then at the end there we had a different matchup so I had her go down the line. She’s got a great cross-court serve and her down-the-line serve’s just OK. She gave them fits, she got the ace — that thing dropped out, nobody’s gonna pass that ball. So she just has great hand contact and was thumping it, and that’s what happens when you do that. You get a lot of movement and you get that knuckle ball and she got one that dropped, one that rose, and really put K-State on their heels.”
Cook always says that the six best servers are going to play, and Akana was certainly among that group this weekend despite seeing limited playing time.
“Keonilei came in and served rockets, and that’s hard to do, sitting for two games… Those are the decisions we’re going to have to make because the back row can win us matches just like the front row can,” Cook said.
Welcome Back, Husker Nation
While I wouldn’t say that every seat in the Devaney Center was filled for either match, announced attendance was close to 8,000 for both matches and there were plenty of fans in the standing-room-only sections. After a year of playing in front of a limited number of friends and family, the Huskers were happy to play in front of their fans once again.
“I think there were matches last year that if we would have had the crowd, matches might have gone differently,” Kubik said. “It’s an insane impact, the way it feels to play.”
Caffey, who transferred into the program from Missouri last year, missed out on the full Husker experience during her first season.
“This was one of my first times playing in a full Devaney and I definitely think that the fans bring a huge momentum shift for us,” Caffey said. “I think it’s so fun playing in the gym with them.”
Perhaps the loudest moments of the weekend came during the fourth set against Kansas State as the Huskers chipped away at the Wildcats’ lead and eventually pulled ahead.
“It was disappointing in game three when we kind of lost them,” Cook said. “When K-State called their first timeout, I think it was 18-16, I said ‘If you guys get us tied up, get a couple more points, this crowd is going to go nuts,’ and I said, ‘You’ve got to get the crowd back into it,’ and they did. That’s the advantage of playing at home at Devaney.”
The Huskers will get a chance to play in front of those fans once again next weekend as Nebraska hosts Omaha, Georgia and Arizona State in the Americas Players Challenge.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.