The Big Ten volleyball season won’t begin until late January, but John Cook gave fans a sneak peek at the 2020-21 Huskers by streaming the Red-White Scrimmage last week.
Nebraska brings back most of its rotation from last year’s 28-5 squad, but a handful of new faces made a splash in the scrimmage.
Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun did not play as she was waiting for the results from a COVID-19 test, but everyone else suited up and played in Thursday’s scrimmage. The Red team featured most of the returning starters — Lauren Stivrins, Nicklin Hames, Madi Kubik, Jazz Sweet and Kenzie Knuckles. It also included a sophomore and two true freshmen.
The player who rose to the occasion with Sun out was sophomore outside hitter Riley Zuhn. The 6-foot-4 Colorado native bounced between pin-hitter and middle blocker last year and saw minimal playing time, out now she’s settled in on the outside. In the scrimmage, she recorded seven kills including four or five in the first set.
“I think Riley’s great,” Kubik said. “She’s the type of person that you enjoy playing next to because she’s such a positive vibe and a great teammate. They moved her around a lot when she was first here, playing middle, right side, outside. I think she’s someone who rolls with the punches and adjusts to whatever is thrown at her, and I think that’s so amazing. She’s a great player and a great teammate and she played really well tonight.”
With Capri Davis and Anezka Szabo leaving the program and a 2020 recruiting class absent of any outside hitters, Zuhn has become even more important for the Huskers as the only on-hitter behind Sun, Kubik and Sweet.
A position where the Huskers do have plenty of depth is middle blocker, yet on Thursday, it was true freshman Kalynn Meyer, a native of Superior, Nebraska, who started next to Stivrins on the Red team.
“She doesn’t act like a freshman; that’s one thing,” Cook said about why Meyer earned that opportunity. “Two, she’s very athletic. She has a really fast arm and she has picked up our system really quickly. But those middles are being juggled all the time. I had no idea how Kalynn would do tonight — freshman, first time out there. But I was not surprised and she looked really solid tonight. Our middles have been doing an amazing job in training and in practice. It’s a really strong group and they’re all very close to each other. It just depends who has the best day that day; it’s somebody new every day.”
Meyer finished with six kills on 10 attempts and didn’t record an attack error. She also helped form a strong block for the Red team that the White struggled with all night.
With Meyer playing for the Red team, returning starter Callie Schwarzenbach line up on the opposite side of the net. Cook said during the scrimmage that she’s been their best blocker recently in practice, but they’re continuing to work with her on her arm swing.
Meyer’s partner in the middle, Missouri graduate transfer Kayla Caffey, led the way for the White team with eight kills.
“She’s an awesome addition to our team,” Kubik said. “She has a really fast arm swing, which is great. She’s up quick and the ball’s down pretty quickly as well. And she’s a good blocker too. She’s nice to block next to. I think she just brings another great talent to our team, just pushes us and makes everyone better, blockers and hitters.”
With Meyer, Schwarzenbach and Caffey — all who have multiple years of eligibility remaining — the Huskers are in a great spot at middle blocker both for this season and moving forward.
The other newbie on the Red team was defensive specialist Keonilei Akana. The biggest departure from last year’s team was Megan Miller, who played a big role in the back row off the bench. That playing time is up for grabs and Cook gave the freshman from Hawaii a chance to show what she is capable of during the scrimmage.
“Kenzie Knuckles has established herself as our libero, and from there it’s been wide open,” Cook said. “We threw Keonilei on the Red team tonight to see how she would handle that and here’s how you tell how confident somebody is: how they serve. She served really tough tonight, so that just shows you how confident and comfortable she was over there. That’s a testament to our team, making her feel comfortable, and for her blending in and being able to perform that way.”
Akana served up a couple of aces and also took a few swings out of the back row, which is an element that she brings to the team that most defensive specialists don’t. Cook said he’s been very efficient attacking out of the back row in practice, even if she didn’t convert any of her swings in the scrimmage into kills.
Akana is competing with senior Hayley Densberger, who played libero for the White team, and redshirt freshman Emma Gabel, who led the White team with eight digs in her first action in front of fans since tearing her ACL before she arrived at Nebraska.
“Hayley and Emma have been doing great,” Cook said. “Emma and Anni [Evans] are probably our two most improved players and I think Hayley is playing the best volleyball of her career. That’s been a very competitive spot as well.”
Nebraska returns almost its entire rotation, but the Huskers have also added a lot of new faces. Cook said the one positive to come out of the COVID-19-altered offseason and preseason is that it has created an even tighter bond than normal for the team.
“What I like most about this team is how we push each other every single day in practice,” Kubik said. “We’re getting better, and I think that’s because everyone is raising the level and I think that’s really cool, especially with us kind of adding a lot of people. I think the relationships that we have with one another, this time has really helped to mold that and make us really close and play really well together.”
The Huskers are taking some time off to finish off their final exams, but they’ll return after Thanksgiving and start ramping up their preseason practice again on Dec. 1. The season is set to begin on Jan. 22.
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.