For the first time since her redshirt season in 2014, Nebraska will take the court without All-American setter Kelly Hunter.
Coach John Cook revealed after Saturday night’s Red/White Scrimmage that Hunter would miss at least one of Nebraska’s first two matches as the Huskers head to Gainesville on Friday to take on Oregon and Florida in the VERT Challenge.
Hunter has missed practice while rehabbing an undisclosed injury.
“She can play; the question is how long, and we have to figure that out,” Cook said. “She can’t play two matches back-to-back next week, so that’s what we have to sort through.”
With Hunter on the shelf, redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton has been running the top unit in practices.
“She stepped in right away and she’s been working really hard,” senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht said. “She’s working for this. Obviously big shoes to fill right now and there’s a lot of pressure, but she’s doing a pretty good job with it.”
Atherton played with the Red team made up primarily of projected starters in Saturday’s Red/White scrimmage. She guided the Red team to a 3-1 win with 33 assists, seven digs and three blocks. Fellow redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins, who played with Atherton on the White team in last year’s scrimmage, said Atherton has made a big leap in the last year.
“From that game to this game, I think her confidence has gone up tremendously and she’s really growing as a player,” Lauren Stivrins said. “Mentally, she’s making smart plays. She’s working really hard and she’s talking a lot more, which is something that she needed to do and she’s been working hard on. She’s really maturing.”
However, Cook said she still has a lot of work to do and not a lot of time as the Huskers will need her to be ready to go against Oregon and/or Florida.
“She’s kind of feeling her way,” Cook said. “We’ve got to get her to embrace being the starting setter. I thought the longer the match went on, she got a little more comfortable. But she’s got to take another big step in that direction, be more comfortable. She belongs and she can do it.”
For Cook, to embrace being the starting setter is to play freely and to always focus on the next point.
“She’s worried about making mistakes,” Cook said. “When you do that, you get tight, you set low and you see those hitters down here.”
Atherton’s inexperience showed at the service line as well, where she had two errors without an ace.
“Another way you can tell is by how they serve,” Cook said. “If you noticed in the beginning her serving, she was like hoping the ball would land anywhere near the court. And then at the end, we started with her serve and she’s hitting really tough serves and really confident. That’s a great way to gauge players’ confidence … Serving is a very revealing thing in volleyball.”
Last season, Hunter guided Nebraska to a top three offense in the Big Ten as the Huskers hit .287, dished out 13.32 assists per set and recorded 14.43 kills per set.
On Saturday, the Red team under Atherton’s direction hit .190 with 11.25 kills and 9.5 assists per set. However, that included a rusty first set that saw the team commit 10 attack errors with just seven kills. Over the last three sets, the Red team hit .278 with 12.7 kills and 10.7 assists per set, showing the team ran much more smoothly after Atherton and her teammates were able to settle in.
With Hunter on the shelf, former Husker and Team USA libero and current assistant coach Kayla Banwarth stepped in to give the team a second setter both in practice and the scrimmage. She finished with 33 assists, 14 digs and three kills in the scrimmage, showing she’s still more than capable of holding her own.
“She’s great,” Cook said. “I can tell you right now she’s on the Ibuprofen IV. She’s an Olympian. You saw some of the plays she made. She’s not really a setter but she was giving those guys great swings.”
However, Banwarth is out of eligibility and is not an option for next weekend’s matches, meaning beyond whatever Hunter is able to give the team, the responsibility rests on Atherton’s shoulders.
Atherton was ranked as the No. 41 prospect and the No. 8 setter in 2016 according to PrepVolleyball.com. She graduated from high school early and enrolled at Nebraska in the spring, giving her an extra semester to work with the coaches.
She’ll have a chance to show what she’s capable of right out of the gates. Oregon was ranked No. 18 in the preseason AVCA poll, while the host Gators were No. 12.
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.