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No. 2 Seed Huskers Open NCAA Tournament Play Against Delaware State Hornets

December 01, 2022

Nebraska held its final press conference prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday, and Coach John Cook’s status update on senior setter Nicklin Hames was brief.

Cook said she participated in roughly 40% of the team’s practice after missing the regular season finale against Minnesota. Kennedi Orr started and Anni Evans came off the bench to set in Nebraska’s 6-2 in the loss to the Golden Gophers.

Hames’ status might still be up in the air, but Kenzie Knuckles’ is not. She’s out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. The senior defensive specialist was third on the team in serve receptions, meaning her absence changes things significantly in the back row. The Huskers struggled a bit in serve receive against Wisconsin and Minnesota thanks to uncertainty born from unfamiliarity, but they’ve used the last few days of practice to hammer down those responsibilities.

“I think it’s getting a lot better,” Lexi Rodriguez said. “I think that we’re all getting super comfortable back there. We had to get through the rough patches, but I think we’re all pretty confident next to each other now and have dialed in the seams and the communication between each other.”

Ally Batenhorst is the new passer. Previously, Knuckles would sub in for Batenhorst during her turn in the back row, but now the 6-foot-5 sophomore is playing all the way around.

“Ally passed pretty well last weekend,” Cook said. “She held her own passing and I thought she played pretty good defense. She played six rotations last year some of the matches early on. But we’re always developing those guys. It’s not like all of a sudden, ‘Oh, you’re going to pass now and dig now.’ She trains defense every day, she trains passing every day — all the outside hitters do. We’re always training them because at some point in their career, we want them to be six-rotations. 

Cook shuffled his lineup a bit in an attempt to lighten the back row burden on Batenhorst, giving Madi Kubik more rotations in he back during the course of a set. It’s still a work in progress for all the other pins, but without Knuckles, Cook said he didn’t have many options other than to throw Batenhorst into the deep end of the pool.

“Madi is unusual in that she played six rotations starting in her freshman year,” Cook said. “It’s hard to find freshmen that can do that. Mikaela Foecke took two years, Lexi Sun took two years. It takes a while to get really good to be a six-rotation player. That’s why they’re so hard to find and recruit and they’re so valuable to your program because you can’t sub everybody out of the back row.”

That all-around prowess is what made Kubik an unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection on Wednesday when the league released it’s postseason awards, an honor she shared with Rodriguez.

“It’s a tough team to make,” Cook said. “Again, Maddie is a six-rotation player that does everything for us. The coaches recognize she carries a big load for us and does it a lot. Coaches respect that and see that, and I look at the same thing when I’m voting. If somebody’s just three rotations compared to a six-rotation outside, it’s a big deal. It’s the hardest position to play. And Lexi’s the best libero in the conference, so I’d call that a no-brainer.”

Wisconsin and Minnesota added insult to injury by sending the Huskers into the postseason with two straight losses, but Nebraska has used the past few days to reset and focus in on the path that lays before them.

“I think the last couple of days our team has made a really big commitment just to recover from last weekend and get our minds right and recognize the opportunity that we have the next couple of weeks with the tournament,” Kubik said. “I think we’re really excited for the opportunity and to start that tomorrow.”

That path begins with a match-up against Delaware State, the MEAC champion. The Hornets went 24-6 and won their conference tournament to earn a berth into the tournament, but they only faced one high-major team all season, falling to West Virginia in five in mid-September.

“They’ve got some good athletes,” Cook said. “They are very well coached. I don’t know if you know this, their coach has a doctorate degree, so he’s done some good stuff. They’re athletic and they do a nice job. They run a 6-2, but one of their setters does a really nice job. She’s very athletic, flies around, fires the ball around. I don’t watch them play every match; they’re playing against different teams than we’re playing, so the style’s a little bit different. But they do a nice job. But again, he’s got some really nice athletes.”

Delaware State boasts the second-best opponent hitting percentage in the country at .132, behind only Nebraska’s .129. The Mountaineers hit .204 in their victory against the Hornets. Senior libero Jasmal Cruz leads the defense with 4.31 digs per set while 6-foot-1 senior middle blocker Sydney Lewis contributes 1.12 blocks per set and 1.92 kills per set on .449 hitting.

Offensively, Delaware State hit .262. Alondra Maldonado, a 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter, leads the team with 2.90 kills per set on .349 hitting. Karen Cordero, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter from California that started her college career at Western Nebraska Community College, is second with 2.35 kills per set on .232 hitting and first with 52 aces (0.49 per set). Senior Malgorzata Andersohn (6.33 assists per set, 0.47 aces per set) and junior Alayna Lacy (3.93 assists per set) split the setting duties. 

If Nebraska advances to the second round, the Huskers will face either No. 7 seed Miami (19-10) or Kansas (18-10), who will duke it out in the first round Thursday prior to Nebraska’s match. 

The Hurricanes are hitting .232 and allowing opponents to hit .196 this season. All-ACC First Team Janice Leao, a 6-foot-3 senior middle blocker, is averaging 2.41 kills per set on .325 hitting. Junior outside hitter Angela Grieve (3.91 kills per set, .208 hitting) and senior setter Savanna Vach (10.33 assists per set) were second-team All-ACC picks. Miami’s best win came against then-No. 10 Georgia Tech in four sets on Nov. 4.

Kansas is hitting .251 and holding tams to .181 this season. FourJayhawks found their way onto the All-Big 12 Second Team. Ayah Elnady, a 5-foot-10 redshirt freshman outside hitter, leads the team with 2.83 kills per set on .234 hitting and 0.38 aces per set. Former Husker Anezka Szabo, a 6-foot-3 super senior opposite hitter, is averaging 2.31 kills per set on .304 hitting. Sophomore setter Camryn Turner is leading the offense with 9.22 assists per set and 2.62 digs per set. Lauren Dooley, a 6-foot-6 super senior middle blocker, adds 1.61 kills per set on .400 hitting and .074 blocks per set including a team-but 16 solo stuffs. Kansas’s only win over a ranked opponent came against then-No. 22 Utah on the first day of the season.

Before the Huskers can worry about any future opponents, however, they have to take care of business in the first round. First serve against Delaware State is set for 7 p.m. or 30 minutes after the conclusion of Miami-Kansas and will be available to stream for ESPN+ subscribers.

“We’ve talked about this,” Kubik said. “I think we have potentially six more matches, and that’s the maximum. If we can play great volleyball and believe that we can win for six matches, I think this team can beat anyone.”

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