Omaha will become the center of the college volleyball world on Thursday as CHI Health Center Omaha plays host to the 2022 Final Four.
Unfortunately, Nebraska isn’t one of the teams in Omaha. The field includes Texas, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Had someone told you in August that Nebraska’s season would come to an end before the Regional Finals, you probably would have had a difficult time believing it. Fresh off a trip to the 2021 national championship with a bunch of returning talent and heading into the season as the preseason No. 1 team, a path back to Omaha for the Final Four seems clear.
Heck, John Cook even worked with Kirsten Bernthal Booth to change the location of this year’s match against Creighton to Omaha so the Huskers could have a chance to play at CHI Health Center Omaha prior to the postseason.
That the Huskers will be sitting at home with the rest of us has to be a tough pill to swallow for John Cook and his team considering the high expectations (and general standard the program sets for itself). On the surface, the preseason No. 1 team bowing out in the Sweet 16 looks like a big missed opportunity, and the Huskers were certainly disappointed that they didn’t reach their goal. However, Cook’s final message to his team after Nebraska’s five-set loss to Oregon last Thursday struck a different tune.
“I told them I don’t think there’s anybody in Nebraska that’s not proud of them,” Cook said.
Despite the amount of talent returning, the 2022 season was anything but smooth for Cook and the Huskers. Between injury, illness and coach’s decisions, Cook rolled out — by my count — 16 different lineup combinations (not factoring in when Maisie Boesiger played as a serving sub) and two different offensive systems. Everyone on the roster played this season and came up big at one time or another.
“If you remember in the very beginning, I said that everybody on our team is capable of playing,” Cook said prior to the Oregon match. “Everybody has played this year in some pretty big matches. It goes back to us being a great team. These guys echo that when they talk about how special of a group it is. They play with each other, for each other. There is a lot of trust. It has made it easy for us to make those adjustments and changes. We haven’t missed a beat doing it.”
As well as Nebraska handled the constantly changing lineup, the death blow to Nebraska’s national title hopes likely landed when Kenzie Knuckles went down with a torn ACL near the end of practice on Nov. 23. With Knuckles healthy, Nebraska fielded the best defense in the country, and that’s what they built their identity on. Ally Batenhorst, Madi Kubik and others did their best to fill the void and adjust to new roles, but it was too much to ask for this team to reach the level needed to win a title without even a full, uninterrupted week of practice post-injury.
The first curveball the team had to deal with came after week one. Cook said during the offseason that he was giving the keys to the offense to sophomore setter Kennedi Orr while Nicklin Hames moved to defensive specialist for her fifth year, but after one weekend (and two starts for Orr) Cook decided to switch from the 5-1 single setter offense to a 6-2 featuring two setters (including Hames) and four pins.
Hames missed eight matches with injuries (including one tournament match), while Orr (16 matches) and Anni Evans (24 matches) found themselves in and out of the lineup throughout the season. Batenhorst missed four matches with an abdominal injury. Freshman Bekka Allick missed two matches because of illness.
Five matches was the longest streak Nebraska had this season of playing the same lineup and rotation. Only the best of the best make it to the Final Four, and it’s really hard to get to that level when you’re constantly dealing with change.
The loss marked the end of the careers for four seniors — Hames, Kubik, Knuckles and Kaitlyn Hord — who all took very different paths but made immense contributions to the program in their own ways.
“It’s hard to believe that they’re not going to be here anymore,” Cook said. “That’s the first thing I’m trying to wrap my head around. I hugged Madi on the way over here; it seems like she just got here as a freshman. It goes by really fast. But they’re going to have their master’s degrees. They’ve had great careers. Nicklin is going into coaching, Madi and Kaitlyn will be playing pro in a month and Kenzie is going to stay in Lincoln as she already has a job working with the 1890 collective. So I’m excited that Kenzie is still going to stay around and Nicklin is going to be around so we’ll have those connections and Madi and Kaitlyn are going to chase their dreams playing pro. It’s a wonderful group. That’s what makes the end of the season hard.”
Evans, the junior walk-on out of Waverly, entered the transfer portal on Dec. 10, meaning Nebraska heads into the 2023 season without a senior barring any portal additions. A new era of Husker volleyball is about to begin with the highly-touted 2021 recruiting class set to step into a leadership role after serving as the supporting cast to a group of veterans the last two seasons.
“Going forward, I think us sophomores — there’s five of us and I think we know that we’re going to play a really big role next year and I think we’re looking forward to that,” Lindsay Krause said. “But also we really wanted to get that win for these seniors, so that really sucks.”
The loss may sting now, but the future remains bright for the program. Whitney Lauenstein, one of those sophomores, led the team in total points during her breakout sophomore year while Krause elevated her game down the stretch of the season, averaging 2.51 kills per set on .320 in her last 12 matches (including 3.25 kills per set on .378 hitting in three postseason matches).
The 2022 season didn’t end the way the Huskers likely envisioned it, but they displayed tremendous resiliency and adaptability throughout. Looking ahead, Cook doesn’t rebuild, he reloads, and Nebraska will welcome the top-ranked recruiting class in the country to supplement the core of returning underclassmen looking to step up and lead the program into the future.
As for the Final Four in Omaha, there are still plenty of storylines for local volleyball fans to follow. Nebraska wasn’t the only Big Ten team to fall short — this is the first Final Four since 2006 without at least one Big Ten representative.
Louisville will likely receive the biggest ovation from the local fans with former Husker Dani Busboom Kelly at the helm, and she has a spectacular team. San Diego enters the final week of the season as the lone participant from outside a power league, and the Toreros have a local product on their roster in Millard North graduate Kate Galvin, a freshman defensive specialist. Former Huskers Kayla Caffey and Keonilei Akana return to Nebraska with Texas, though the Longhorns are always fun to root against as well.
With a combined 118-7 record for the four teams in Omaha, this year’s Final Four features the fewest losses since 2001, so volleyball fans in Omaha should be in store for two great days of volleyball even without Nebraska being part of it.
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.