The Red-White Scrimmage is officially in the books and next up for Nebraska volleyball is the season opener. To get you ready for the 2019 season, Hail Varsity is going position by position to bring you in-depth analysis of the Nebraska roster. We wrap things up with a look at the defensive specialists including the battle for the libero job.
If replacing All-American outside hitter Mikaela Foecke is the biggest question mark for the Huskers in 2019, finding a new libero to step in for another All-American in Kenzie Maloney is a close second.
“That’s going to be a great battle,” Coach John Cook said at the start of preseason practice. “We’re going to find out who’s ready for that and who wants it. That will be one of the big question marks I think for this team is who can step in and take that role.”
Nebraska returns two defensive specialists with experience in sophomore Megan Miller and junior Hayley Densberger, and it also has a new Kenzie in the room as freshman Kenzie Knuckles, PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 37 recruit overall and third-ranked libero, enrolled early and went through the beach season and exhibition match with the team. Knuckles said she learned a lot from the beach season.
“During beach it’s a mental game,” Knuckles said. “I learned that along the way, staying mentally calm and playing mentally steady. So I think that will transfer over and help a lot.”
Knuckles and Miller are both from Indiana (Knuckles from Yorktown and Miller from Alexandria, about 15 miles apart), and Miller said she is excited about the competition.
“We’re both still learning,” Miller said. “I’m still technically young but I’m just trying to do everything I can. Kenzie and I have a really good background coming from the same place so we already came in kind of close, which has helped a lot. I think we’re really understanding each other and it makes it easier to help her on the court.”
During the beach season, Knuckles teamed up with Sweet in the No. 2 spot, and she also started and played the whole match at libero in the exhibition win over Colorado State in McCook.
The 5-foot-8 Knuckles played outside hitter for her high school team, earning all-state honors all four seasons at Yorktown. As a senior, she led her team to a 34-0 record while averaging 4.2 kills and 3.9 digs per set.
As a freshman, Miller played in 29 matches with nine starts, averaging 2.01 digs per set and serving up 20 aces. She had six matches with double-digit digs including a high of 23 in a four-set win at Michigan. Miller’s playing time fluctuated throughout the season, but she closed out the year strong with a good showing in the NCAA Tournament.
“I learned that a lot of it has to do with my confidence,” Miller said about her freshman year. “I just have to know that the team always has my back; they’re really good about doing that. But as long as I can regain my confidence then I’ll be good and solid.”
Knuckles played the entire match at libero for the Red team (made up primarily of projected starters) in the Red-White Scrimmage while Miller played the first two sets as the defensive specialist subbing in for opposite hitter Jazz Sweet in the back row. Miller switched over to the White team as a defensive specialist in the third game. Knuckles and Miller both finished with eight digs in the match while Knuckles added two aces.
Densbegrer, a junior from Malcolm, Nebraska, played in 32 matches last season, averaging 1.2 digs per set and recording 16 service aces. She posted a career-high 11 digs in a five-set loss at Penn State.
Densberger was voted Lifter of the Year by her teammates, an award she received during the intermission of the Red-White Scrimmage.
“Hayley is one of the hardest working girls on our team,” junior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “I think that she shows it in the gym and when we’re lifting every day. I think that it’s well deserved. Hayley’s a stud and has been working really hard in the offseason.”
Densberger played libero for the White team in the scrimmage, finishing with four digs and two assists.
Based on everything we’ve seen to this point, it looks like the libero job is Knuckles’ to lose and I’d expect to see her in that role on Friday night against Creighton.
Sophomore Chen Abramovich broke her foot prior to the start of preseason practice and is in a boot to start the season. The sophomore from Kfar Saba, Israel, appeared in one match last season.
Emma Gabel, a freshman walk-on out of Lincoln Pius X (the same school that produced former Husker standout walk-on Sydney Townsend) tore her ACL during the club season and will miss the 2019 season at Nebraska.
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.