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. First up is the setter position.
A year ago, Coach John Cook had a massive void to fill at setter with the graduation of First Team All-American and three-year captain Kelly Hunter. Now, after an honorable mention All-American freshman season from Nicklin Hames, setter is one of the most secure positions on the team as the Huskers head into 2019.
Hames won the starting job as a true freshman and never looked back, taking the Huskers all the way to the brink of winning a national championship. She averaged 10.49 assists and 3.32 digs per set and was second on the team with 40 aces. She recorded a double-double in 25 of her 36 matches and was named the the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
With Hames running the show, Nebraska was fourth in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .265, and two of the three teams ahead of them were led by senior setters in Minnesota’s Samantha Seliger-Swenson and Illinois’ Jordyn Poulter. Hames early success shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who studied her prep career, however, as she won five state titles at Webb School in Maryville, Tennessee. Yes, five — she began her high school playing career as an eighth-grader.
Hames showed Cook enough during her freshman season and the team’s trip to Asia to be named a team captain alongside junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins.
“I’ve just kind of been how I am through my whole life,” Hames said. “Coach kind of talked to me about it at the end of my freshman season. When he told me I was kind of shocked and kind of nervous at first because I was so young and I hadn’t been in the program for so long, but my teammates have been super supportive about it and they all tell me all the time they trust me. It gives me a lot of confidence to be able to lead them and having Lauren by my side, she’s been here for a couple more years than I have and she’s one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever seen, so I have a lot more confidence now.”
Stivrins said it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the program when Cook named Hames a captain.
“She’s one of the hardest-working people in this program and she’s just so mature,” Stivrins said. “She holds herself and carries herself very well and I think a lot of people can look up to her. Even though she is so young she acts wise beyond her years.”
Cook said identifying leadership qualities is an important part of the way they recruit setters, and Hames certainly stood out in that area.
“Any time you can have your setter be a captain it’s a huge advantage because they’re running the show,” Cook said. “As I tell our setters, they're driving the car and everybody’s along for the ride, so you want them in that leadership role. She got to watch Kelly Hunter for three years be in that position and do really well. You always try to have a setter be a captain.”
Hames admitted she did feel a bit of pressure coming in after Hunter, but eventually she settled in and the natural leadership ability and skill Cook identified while recruiting her shown through.
“Coming in after her, she was one of the greatest setters to ever play here, so it was hard because I at first felt like I was replacing her, and I kind of found out through the season I just needed to be myself and find my own identity and find how I played as a setter,” Hames said. “I think towards the end of the season, and I just feel more confident in myself now and my identity as a setter.”
Hames will have a little extra help this season as she transition into the captain’s role thanks to Hunter’s return as a graduate assistant.
“I was doing jumping jacks when she called me and said she wanted to come back,” Cook said. “I’ve been telling her her whole career she’d be a great coach. I actually think she’s thinking about it now. She is getting her master’s, it’s an MBA program so there’s a business part of her that maybe she’ll want to go into business. As a grad manager, she’s limited in what she can do, but just having her there — we still have two very young setters, so we’re going to use her in every way we can and Kelly just has a presence about her that you either have or you don’t, and obviously she has it. I hope she really wants to go into coaching.”
Hames never got to play with Hunter, but she did get to watch closely as Hunter grew into one of the best leader’s Cook has had at Nebraska. Hames committed to the Huskers in July of 2015.
“Kelly’s one of the greatest setters to ever play here and she’s an awesome person and she was a great leader here as well,” Hames said. “Having her in the gym, she’s going to help tremendously with setting and the other things, the mental part of being a setter and also just helping us a little bit with our leadership and how she led the team when she was here, so she’s going to be super useful to this program.”
Hames isn’t the only setter in the program, however. Hames’ back-ups from last season are both gone as Brooke Smith graduated and Mari Kurkova left the team in the spring, but Nicole Drewnick, originally committed for the 2020 class, reclassified and enrolled this summer to give the Huskers some much-needed setter depth.
Drewnick won two state titles at Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas, but left home as a junior to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She spent part of last year training with and playing for the Brazilian Youth National Team, helping Brazil qualify for the 2019 FIVB World Championships.
After a couple of discussions with Cook, Drewnick chose to reclassify and enroll at Nebraska as a 17-year-old rather than continuing to work with her way up the ranks of the Brazilian National Team program.
“Nicole pushes me to be better every day and we’re always pushing each other in the gym, being competitive,” Hames said. “I get to help her through the things that I went through last year because it’s kind of a struggle transitioning over and learning the new techniques and so I can just talk to her about how I went through that struggle and how I fixed that problem or how I went through it. We’re kind of having that connection because I can help her out with that but it’s also reminding me of those things I need to still keep in the back of my mind.”
In Saturday’s Red-White Scrimmage, Hames finished with 29 assists, eight digs, two kills and an ace while leading the Red team to a 3-0 win. Drewnick had 25 assists and eight digs for the White team and Cook praised her setting when discussing Capri Davis’ big night.
“Nicklin and Nicole both do a great job of setting our team up for success and allowing us to do our job, since they do their job well,” said freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik, who played with both setters in the scrimmage. “Honestly, they’re all we could ask for.”
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.