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Nebraska Volleyball Position-by-Position Preview: Middle Blocker
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Volleyball Position-by-Position Preview: Middle Blocker

August 26, 2019

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 covered the setters on Sunday and today we’ll take a look at the middle blockers.

Middle blocker should be one of the strengths of this team as both starters — including an All-American — return and a couple of newcomers should add some much-needed depth.

If the crowd response during Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage is anything to go by, Lauren Stivrins has emerged as a fan favorite. There was a little bit more juice in the crowd when she was announced before the match and any time she made a play during it. It’s not hard to understand why.

Stivrins is the most experienced player on the team as a redshirt junior and she’s also the most accomplished as she was named to the AVCA All-America and All-Big Ten first teams in 2018 after putting up 2.36 kills and 1.17 blocks per set while hitting .421, second-highest in the Big Ten.

Stivrins closed out 2018 with a dominant showing in the national championship game, finishing with a career-high 19 kills on .615 hitting to go with five blocks. 

This offseason, Cook named Stivrins a team captain alongside sophomore setter Nicklin Hames.

“I’ve been here for quite some time and I’ve gotten to see some really great volleyball players and people come through this program,” Stivrins said. “To be recognized as one of those is really amazing. I’m super excited to see what this team can do this year and I’m excited to lead them with [Hames].”

Stivrins is one of the most fiery competitors on the team with an outgoing personality, and now she’s working to channel that emotion into steady leadership.

“Lauren has been through the grind here,” Cook said. “She started off and didn’t play. She’s become an All-American. She works really hard. She improves all the time and I felt like her team really respects her because of that. She’s a competitor. I just thought the combination of those two would be good. We’ll find out. It’s also, I would say, it changes how Lauren sees herself. She was kind of just here having fun playing and now she, I think, feels a responsibility for Nebraska volleyball.”

Stivrins got to watch and play alongside Mikaela Foecke the last few years and is hoping to use some of what she learned to be an even bigger part of Nebraska’s offense this season.

“I think what made Foecke so special was the fact that she was so composed every second of the game and I know I get really emotionally invested and I get super excited,” Stivrins said. “Just kind of taking how she was successful and learning from her. She was just very composed all the time and if she made a mistake you knew that next ball she wouldn’t make that same mistake, she wouldn’t let it affect how she played. I’d like to take a lot of mental aspects of Mikaela Foecke’s game and incorporate that into my game.”

Stivrins and Hames teamed up during the beach season to continue strengthening their connection, and Hames said Stivrins is ready to pick up some of the slack left by Foecke’s departure.

“She always wants the ball which is what you want out of a hitter and she’s always telling me “You better set me this next ball’ so I feel like she’s going to fit perfectly in that role,” Hames said. “I think you guys saw in the national championship game she took over.”

Hames wasn’t the only true freshman starter on the team last year. Stivrins’ partner in the middle, sophomore Callie Schwarzenbach, made an immediate impact defensively and had some flashes on offense as well.

At 6-foot-5, Schwarzenbach averaged 1.09 kills and 1.33 blocks per set while hitting .291. She was third in the Big Ten overall in blocks and second in conference play.

“Callie had some great moments last year,” Cook said. “She had some rough moments. So now we’re going to see if she can be great all the time. I saw her in Asia play two of the best matches I’ve ever seen her play since I’ve been coaching her. I’m hoping she can carry that into this fall and has a confidence now. 

“We have some great middles that we have to go against. [Wisconsin junior] Dana Rettke has been playing with the USA team all summer; that’s one middle she’s going to have to go against. I know Callie is a competitor and the better the competition, it brings out the best in her. I’d like to see her take it up a notch this year compared to last year. She was second in the conference in blocking as a freshman, so she’ll have to deal with the expectations of that as well, but it’d be nice to see her really blossom.”

During the Red-White Scrimmage, the Red team got strong production from its middles as Stivrins finished with seven kills on seven swings and Schwarzenbach added nine kills on 15 attempts.

“Callie and Lauren combined had 15 kills out of 41 [team kills], so that’s a pretty nice job there,” Cook said. “That’s one of our things, we want to run more middle.”

In order to do that, the Huskers will have to pass well and stay in-system, and Hames will also have to improve in her connection with the middles as their were more than a few miscues last season.

Fallon Stutheit, a 6-foot-2 walk-on from Johnson-Brock High School in Johnson, Nebraska, will add depth in the middle after a standout prep career that included three Class D-1 state titles while playing for her mother, Tera. 

As a senior at Johnson-Brock, Stutheit averaged 5.1 kills per set and hit .415. As a junior, she recorded 5.9 kills per set on .433 hitting.

Riley Zuhn, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, has been splitting her practice reps between middle blocker and outside hitter and could play either spot during her Nebraska career.

“We have her probably 50-50,” Cook said. “I still don’t know what her best position is. She’s a good volleyball player, she’s a really good blocker and she’s able to jump back and forth as well as anybody I’ve seen. I just want to figure out what role we can get her in so she can contribute because she can help us win matches.”

During the Red-White Scrimmage, Stutheit recorded one kill on three swings while Zuhn finished with 4 kills on 10 swings, one dig and one block while splitting her time between middle and outside for the White team.

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