The offseason has nearly reached its end for the No. 1 Nebraska volleyball team. The Huskers will open the season this weekend at the Devaney Center with the Ameritas Players Challenge.
“I can’t believe we’re already starting,” senior Nicklin Hames said. “It feels like we just finished. But I think we’re super pumped and we worked really hard the past couple weeks. So think everyone’s really excited.”
The Huskers will face Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 11 a.m. on Friday before returning to the Devaney Center to take on Tulsa at 6:30 p.m. Nebraska will close out the tournament on Saturday night against Pepperdine with a 7 p.m. start.
Coach John Cook’s plan to make it through the three-matches-in-34-hours stretch is to have all hands on deck and ready to go.
“We’re going to play a lot of people, so that’s how we’re going to manage it,” Cook said. “Hopefully, we’ve trained and they’re in good enough shape that they can handle that. It’s like a two-a-day but there’s more to it because you’ve got to warm up, you play the match, you cool down and you play another match. If they go four or five games, it’s a long day.”
Friday will be the only time this season where the Huskers will have to play two matches in on day. The upcoming Husker Invitational includes just three teams and will take place over three days. Next season, the expansion of the competition window will allow for teams to eliminate multiple matches in a day entirely.
Senior Madi Kubik said the Huskers are approaching the weekend with a “find a way” mentality.
“We’ve been talking about about that a little bit in the gym and recognizing that it might not be clean volleyball given it’s the first weekend and three matches and we’re probably going to be ironing out kinks, changing up lineups,” Kubik said. “So just kind of leaning on each other, trusting each other and trying to find a way to get kills and win sets and matches.”
For the second straight season, Cook has a tightly-contested battle at outside hitter with little separation, meaning multiple players will likely get an opportunity to show they being on the court and lock up a spot.
“I think it was hard and challenging and you try to give everybody an opportunity,” Cook said. “So we’ll kind of do that and see who steps up. That’s what good competition does. Same with the middle middle blocker spot.”
Sophomore Ally Batenhorst is part of that competition. After sitting out the Red-White Scrimmage with a sore abdominal muscle, Batenhorst was back at practice on Tuesday and Cook said she looked great.
“She’s had two really good days,” Cook said. “Tomorrow we won’t do a whole lot, so she’ll have another day to kind of recover. I don’t know how sore she gets after practice, but she did really well.”
The third match of the weekend holds special meaning for one member of the team as Hames’ younger sister, Kayleigh Hames, plays for Pepperdine. The Waves were originally scheduled to play in Lincoln a couple of years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement of that trip.
“It’s so special, just even to be able to see her and play against her,” Hames said. “We don’t get to see each other the whole year, basically. So just have one year where all my family can be here and watch both of us, that’s huge and I’m really excited about it.”
Hames said her parents, her brother and a bunch of other family members will make the trip to Lincoln to see the two sisters share the court.
The news of the week is the announcement of three team captains for the 2022-23 season — seniors Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles and sophomore Lexi Rodriguez. Cook said he put special captain labels on their lockers for the players to find.
“When you play on a team and your peers recognize you as wanting you to be the leaders, it’s one of the greatest honors you can have of being a part of a team,” Cook said. “I reminded them of all the great leaders we’ve had here and they’ve got to keep carrying that on. It’s tremendous honor and it’s a big responsibility … I saw football made a really big deal about it and I saw Garrett Nelson said it brought tears to his eyes. That’s how it should feel because it’s one of the greatest honors you can get.”
Kubik called it a “special progression” to be named alongside her classmate — and roommate — in Knuckles during their senior season.
“It’s really special because it’s very challenging to be a leader at this program, and they have a lot of responsibility,” Kubik said. “So I’m just really excited for that challenge and I’m excited to do it with Kenzie and Lexi because they’re awesome and great leaders and they bring a lot of great things to our team. So it’s just special.”
Absent from the announcement was Hames, who served as captain for the past three seasons. She’s taken a step back in her new role as a super senior, though she’s still planning to be herself and offer some leadership here and there when the team needs it.
“Those three ladies are are amazing and I voted for all of them,” Hames said. “I’m just super happy for them. They worked super hard this summer and just to be able to watch them grow into leaders has been a really cool experience. Even little Lexi — I call her Little Lex. So just to see her grown up and just take it to the next level with her leadership. I’m super happy for them and excited to see the way they’re going to lead this team.”
Like Hames before her and assistant coach Kelly Hunter before that, Rodriguez has ascended to the captain’s role with just one season of play under her belt. However, Hames has no doubts that the libero from Sterling, Illinois, is ready for the responsibility.
“It’s a lot, especially as a sophomore,” Hames said. “She’s still really young and it can be overwhelming, but she’s a baller and has really been through it all, so she’s going to be a great captain.”
After 17 days of practicing against themselves, the Huskers will finally get a chance to test themselves against somebody else. Cook will be watching with a keen eye to see who rises to the occasion.
“I want to see how they compete to win and if we get in close games, who will step it up?” Cook said. “That’s what I’m looking for. And do we do the things we’ve been doing really well in practice? The things we we want to be good at, which is serve of really tough, pass really well, be really disciplined and make it really hard on teams to kill balls.”
Nebraska Public Media will televise the Friday night match while BTN-Plus will stream the other two matches.
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.