MINNEAPOLIS — The Big Ten was home to some of the best setter play in the country this season.
Minnesota senior Samantha Seliger-Swenson was named Big Ten Player of the Year after guiding the Golden Gophers to the Big Ten title and the second overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and she shared Big Ten Setter of the Year honors with Illinois senior Jordyn Poulter who led the Illini to the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley and Penn State’s Bryanna Weiskircher and Purdue’s Hayley Bush and Michigan’s MacKenzi Welsh all put together strong seasons as well and led their teams to the tournament, but it is a true freshman who will represent the conference in the national championship game on Saturday: Nebraska’s Nicklin Hames.
“She's fearless; she's fearless.”
That’s how Coach John Cook described his setter after she led the Huskers to a come-from-behind five-set victory over Illinois in the National Semifinals on Thursday.
“She looked like a freshman a couple games,” Cook said. “But she's a great competitor. She's been the first freshman ever to start [at setter] at Nebraska in the history of the program. Just shows you what kind of competitor she is, how much belief she has. She worked her way into that match and did a great job, got us some great swings when we needed it, especially in those last three games.”
Early in the match, Hames got called for two hits on a routine set. Were nerves getting to the true freshman? Was the moment too big for her?
Not at all. It proved to just be a minor blip in what was otherwise a strong performance with 46 assists, 19 digs and five kills. Hames said she wasn’t nervous at all.
“It kind of just felt like another match,” Hames said. “It is a little bit bigger, it’s a national semifinal, so there’s a little bit riding on it, but honestly it was just going out there and trusting myself and trusting my team.”
When the dust settled and she had time to reflect back, however, it wasn’t just another match after all. Thursday’s five-set thriller was special.
“That was probably the most exciting game I’ve ever been in,” Hames said. “It was a little rough at the start, but I think our team was really resilient and we fought really hard and I think that is why we are here right now. “
Hames is a big part of that resiliency the Huskers have shown this season. Replacing a program legend in a key role like the setter position certainly isn’t easy, but in her first season Hames has already managed to take the team just as far as Kelly Hunter did. This year, she led the Huskers to a top-five offense in the toughest conference in college volleyball and was just as engaged and impactful on defense as well.
“She really is one of a kind,” sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “I’ve never seen someone that can play defense like her and I’ve never seen someone that can bring so much energy except for myself, which is why we get along so well. I’m excited to see what she can do.”
Hames is often the first one diving on the floor for a dig and she broke the program record for double-doubles a few matches ago. Not just double-doubles by a freshman but the most by any player at Nebraska. Any time someone is breaking Jordan Larson’s records, she’s probably doing something pretty special.
“I just learned about the double-double thing, that’s pretty cool,” Cook said after practice on Tuesday, before the Huskers left for Minneapolis. “A lot of great setters have had the chance to do that. The other thing is we’ve hit .350 or higher in six out of the last seven matches I think, or seven our of the last eight. I think that’s more of a compliment to what she’s doing and how much she’s improved because we were having a hard time breaking .200 in the Big Ten and now we’ve been hitting at a better level and it’s all because of her improvement and how hard she’s worked.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Hames and her teammates. She struggled at times early on to get on the same page as her hitters, and the connection with the middle blockers in particular seemed off.
“I think my location has improved the most and just my connection with the hitters,” Hames said. “At the beginning of the season, we were kind of missing on some tempo with a couple hitters and I think we really worked hard. I’ve got to give credit to my hitters, they have made it a lot easier on me. We’ve really worked hard together to get a good connection and I think it’s showing.”
Despite a somewhat slow start to the season as Stivrins and Hames learned how to play with each other, the redshirt sophomore finished the season hitting over .400 and the connection between them will be a major part of Nebraska’s attack moving forward.
“She is an amazing setter and she’s completely changed her role from a freshman to a leader on this team, I really believe that,” Stivrins said. “She’s super consistent. I don’t know, she gets me going. I love hitting off her.”
During the challenge late in set five, Hames and Stivrins were jumping around, pumping each other up for when play would resume. I’d expect for one or both of them to be selected as team captains next season.
Hames and the Huskers have gone toe-to-toe with the best of the best this season and they’re still standing. On Saturday, Hames will get the chance to play against the last setter to lead her team to the national championship as a true freshman in Stanford’s Jenna Gray, now a junior.
Regardless of how that match goes, with eight underclassmen playing big roles led by Hames, the future is incredibly bright for the Huskers. The scary part is that Hames is only going to get better.
Nebraska is losing an outstanding pair of senior co-captains in Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke, but with Hames at the helm, don’t be surprised if the Huskers make it five straight Final Four appearances in 2019.
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.