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Padding the Stats: Handicapping Volleyball Positions Battles

May 24, 2023

After taking a couple weeks off to recharge, the Nebraska volleyball team is back at work preparing for its upcoming trip to Brazil. The Huskers will train up until they depart on Monday.

For a team of 14 featuring six newcomers, the trip is a perfect way to build chemistry and grow closer together before the season. The time spent off the court can be the most valuable part of a trip like this.

That being said, the matches they’ll play and training opportunities in between will be a major boost for a team that has a lot of things to figure out despite returning six players who logged multiple starts in 2022 (including its libero).

In Nebraska’s gym, competition reigns supreme and no spot is safe. That has never been more true than right now with the arrival of a highly-regarded freshman class that looks ready for immediate playing time.

“They’re studs,” Bekka Allick said of the team’s five freshmen after Nebraska’s spring exhibition in Grand Island. “They don’t mess around. They’re a lot of fun to play with.”

John Cook spent the spring indoor training period shuffling his lineups and rotating players at various positions to get a look at everyone. The battles for starting spots will continue throughout the summer and the matches in Brazil will provide another opportunity for the players to show the coaches what they’re capable of. 

However, some positions seem more up for grabs than others. I’m going to handicap the five position battles from most to least intriguing.

1) Setter

We have to start with the biggest wildcard on the team: setter.

Last season didn’t quite go as planned as Cook determined after one weekend that Kennedi Orr wasn’t quite ready to run the offense as the starting setter in a 6-1 system. Now, after another year of development and recovery from the injuries that set her back, she’s taking another crack at earning the starting job as a junior.

That won’t be easy, however. Freshman Bergen Reilly is mature beyond her years and looks to possess the traits needed to run a highly efficient offense.

Orr drew the start in the spring exhibition against Wichita State, perhaps showing some nerves early before settling in. However, Reilly played the last two sets and looked really good in the process.

Regardless of who wins the battle, Nebraska needs more from its setter in order to make a deeper tournament run. Whoever shows Cook that she can deliver that will get the job, and I don’t think he has any qualms about rolling with a freshman in that position. As he told Reilly when he recruited her, the game doesn’t know how old you are.

2) Outside Hitter

Nebraska currently has four outside hitters and just two staring spots available. We could see some rotation early, but by conference play I’d think Cook would like to have identified his best options to roll with.

After spending her freshman year at opposite hitter and bouncing between the left and right as a sophomore, Lindsay Krause is strictly on the left as Cook promised would be her future in the program. I’d favor her to lock up one of those two spots as the 6-foot-4 Omaha Skutt alumna has been the most efficient of Nebraska’s returning pins over the past two years.

In the exhibition against Wichita State, freshman Harper Murray drew the start alongside Krause, and she played all six rotations to boot. The 6-foot-2 Michigan native showed why Cook gave her that opportunity, posting a match-high 12 kills on .391 hitting in two sets of work.

As impressive as Murray was in her first collegiate action, Ally Batenhorst has played a lot of volleyball for the Huskers over the past two years and can’t be discounted. The 6-foot-5 Texan had to wait until the third set in Nebraska’s exhibition to see the court, but she made the most of the time she got with five kills on .364 hitting. Batenhorst got a chance to play all six rotations at the end of the 2022 season after Kenzie Knuckles tore her ACL, experience that could serve her well if she’s managed to improve her ability to terminate this offseason.

The fourth player in the competition is sophomore Hayden Kubik, who seems to be facing an uphill battle for playing time based on what the other three have shown. However, Kubik has risen to the occasion when called upon before, converting some key kills against Creighton in Omaha just a couple weeks into her career after an injury sidelined Batenhorst early in the match.

Regardless of who Cook chooses to play on the left side, an improved attack will be a big key to the Huskers’ success in 2023.

3) Middle Blocker

Bekka Allick started as a freshman and did quite well, and she looked dominant in the exhibition against Wichita State with eight kills on 10 errorless swings and six blocks. I feel pretty good about penciling her into the starting lineup, though she’ll have to continue to earn it every day.

The second spot is a complete wildcard to me, however. 

Maggie Mendelson bounced back and forth between opposite hitter and middle blocker last season, which followed her first summer as a Husker that was split between basketball and volleyball. Perhaps an offseason focused almost solely on Husker volleyball and playing the middle blocker position will allow her to take a significant step forward. It’s also worth a remindiner that she skipped her senior year of high school to enroll early at Nebraska. She didn’t turn 18 until last month.

Mendelson has the edge of a full year in the program under her belt, but Jackson is talented enough physically to potentially overcome that. She’s a jump-out-of-the-gym athlete who terminated seven of her eight swings in the exhibition in just one set of work after Mendelson played in the first two. Jackson’s explosiveness as a leaper gives her tremendous blocking potential as well. She’s still a bit raw, as Cook said after her impressive showing in the Wichita State match, but she looks ready physically to make a difference from day one.

Cook has three top-15 recruits to choose from to fill the two starting middle blocker spots, which is a nice problem to have.

T-4) Opposite Hitter and Libero

I think opposite hitter and libero are both in the same category. They each feature incredibly talented youngsters with bright futures that don’t really have a path to starting this season.

First on the right, Merritt Beason isn’t transferring from Florida to ride the bench in Lincoln. I think you can go ahead and write her down as the starting opposite hitter. That being said, freshman Caroline Jurevicius has a chance to be a terrific player in her own right down the road.

At libero, Lexi Rodriguez is one of the best in the country and has been since she first set foot on the court at the Devaney Center. She’ll be a four-year starter for the Huskers in all likelihood.

That being said, Cook has definitely given freshman Laney Choboy multiple chances to show what she’s capable of. Choboy donned the libero jersey in at least one set during Nebraska’s closed-door scrimmage against Creighton. In the Wichita State exhibition, Choboy played defensive specialist, subbing in for Krause in the back row and stealing the show with her fire, hustle and range. She’d likely be a day-one starter at libero almost anywhere else, but in the meantime she’ll get a chance to play alongside Rodriguez in the back row to form an elite defensive duo.

While nothing is set in stone, it’s very possible that Nebraska could start as many as three freshmen in 2023 (with Choboy playing off the bench), and it wouldn’t be out of necessity or a lack of other options. If the likes of Reilly, Murray and Jackson crack the starting lineup, it will prove how special Cook thinks they are and can be.

It will be fascinating to see how Cook handles such a deep and talented team this season.

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