The march to Omaha officially began bright and early on Tuesday morning as John Cook and the Huskers held their first practice of the 2022 season.
Nebraska began with a good two hours of fundamental work in the morning before returning to the Devaney Center for a second, three-hour practice in the afternoon. As Cook has said previously, they have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time.
Nebraska returns nine players from the 2021 national runner-up roster including its leaders in kills, digs and assists. However, despite the returning production, the 2022 version of the Huskers will look very different.
Here are some of the biggest questions Nebraska has to answer this preseason.
What does a Kennedi Orr-led offense look like?
John Cook said that he’s giving the keys to the car to sophomore Kennedi Orr, so long as she can hold onto the job (Cook said walk-on Anni Evans “isn’t going to go down without a fight”). After four years as the starting setter, Nicklin Hames is preparing to fill a new role — defensive specialist and back-up/emergency setter (she worked with both groups during practice on Monday).
Nebraska was elite defensively last season, and Hames was a big part of that. However, the Huskers’ .222 hitting percentage was the lowest Nebraska has posted in at least the last 39 seasons.
Orr was the top-ranked recruit in the 2021 class, according to PrepVolleyball.com, who saw her senior season of high school cut short by a torn ACL. She returned to the court in time to give the fans a brief glimpse of her ability last season, splitting time with Evans during the Huskers first two matches while Hames recovered from an ankle injury. She totaled 51 assists, 20 digs and three blocks in seven sets against Colgate and Kansas State.
However, since then she’s had a full season and a mostly healthy offseason to continue polishing her skills and growing into the starting setter role, and now it’s her time.
So what does an offense look like with Orr running the show? I asked Cook that question on Tuesday.
“She can play at a much higher level than Anni and Nicklin can because she’s higher above the net,” Cook said about the 6-foot Orr. “She touches 10 feet; we’ve got outside hitters that touch 10 feet. She’s got really big hands so she can hold the ball a little bit and she can look over here and set it back there. She can just do really cool things with her hands because her hands are so big, so that’s one of her gifts. And then I think she’s got a great demeanor for a setter. She makes hitters feel good and just connects with them really well. She’s just got a personality — she’s pretty quiet, but she’s a fierce competitor. So she has that magical part of it. She’s going to really compete really hard but she’s also not going to be in anybody’s face, and I think on a women’s volleyball team, that’s pretty important.”
After four years with Hames running the show, Nebraska’s offense is going to look a little different this season. Cook is willing to bet on that change being good, and having Hames sticking around is one heck of an insurance policy as well as a resource for Orr as she looks to put her fingerprints on the offense.
How does the middle blocker situation play out?
Nebraska had five middle blockers on the roster last season, and none of them are currently on the team. Lauren Stivrins exhausted her eligibility, Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach chose to spend their extra season of eligibility elsewhere, Kalynn Meyer switched to track and field and Rylee Gray medically retired.
Cook doesn’t rebuild, however; he reloads. He added an All-American transfer from Penn State in Kaitlyn Hord and the top two middles in the 2022 recruiting class in Maggie Mendelson and Bekka Allick.
Hord put up better numbers across the board than both Stivrins and Caffey for Penn State last season while Mendelson and Allick have both prepared to make the leap to the Big Ten by playing internationally for Team USA (Allick in September, Mendelson this summer).
Allick is the only one of the three who was on campus for the beach and spring indoor season. In fact, there were points on Tuesday where coaches pulled Hord and Mendelson off to a side court to go through drills while Allick participated with the larger group on the main court.
It’s going to be strange to see the Huskers take the court without Stivrins next season, but ultimately, I think Nebraska is going to be more than fine at that position. Whoever manages to emerge from the battle to lock down those two starting spots should be up for the job.
Who are Nebraska’s six best servers?
Cook’s built his program on serve, block and defense, and he always says the six best servers will play. So who will that be this season?
Keonilei Akana is going to be tough to replace after leading the Huskers in aces last season.
Kenzie Knuckles, Nicklin Hames, Madi Kubik and Lexi Rodriguez are safe bets to be in the serving rotation, with Hames potentially sliding into Akana’s vacated spot. Evans could reprise her role as a server in Nebraska’s situational double-substitution. Beyond that, however, there are a lot of question marks.
What does Orr bring to the table as a setter? Have any of the sophomore pin-hitters made enough of a leap to serve after playing primarily in the front row as freshmen? Could one of the freshmen (including Allick, who has a wicked serve) get onto the court early that way? Somebody will emerge from that group to round out the serving rotation, and if Nebraska is going to make it to Omaha, the service line will play a big role.
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.