As the official’s whistle sounded for the final time on Saturday night, signifying the final point in No. 10 Nebraska’s win over No. 2 Texas in the Austin Regional Final, ESPNU’s television cameras captured a moment of pure joy as the players from Nebraska’s bench sprinted out onto the court to celebrate with their teammates that had just completed the four-set win.
Among them was Lexi Sun, the two-time All-American and All-Big Ten outside hitter who chose to return for a fifth season of eligibility. Sun spent her first three years in Lincoln as starter, but she hasn’t played one point since the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament. She watched from the bench as two freshmen led the Huskers to a win over her former team, just eight months after the Longhorns ended the Huskers’ season in the Elite Eight in Omaha (Sun started and hit .000 in that match).
Yet she was leading the charge off the bench, overcome with emotion as she embraced her teammates. “I’m so proud of you,” she appeared to say to Madi Kubik, the junior who stepped into Sun’s shoes as the team’s go-to hitter this season.
WE. ARE. NEBRASKA. pic.twitter.com/a4P9JL6Yjz
— Husker Volleyball (@Huskervball) December 12, 2021
I’m sure this season hasn’t gone anything like what Sun imagined when she made the decision to come back for one last run. That’s certainly true for me; she was our cover story for the volleyball issue of Hail Varsity Magazine.
Sun has played in just 70 of the Huskers’ 109 sets this season and just 27 of their 32 matches. After starting in 78 of 79 matches in her first three years at Nebraska, she’s logged just 11 starts this season. And again, she hasn’t played since the third set of the Huskers’ first-round win over Campbell.
In that moment, though, she seemingly wasn’t thinking about what she might have missed out on this year. She wasn’t thinking about how she wasn’t the one who blasted the final kill off a Longhorn defender to send her former team home, especially after the post-match tweet from Texas back in the spring. She was simply happy for her teammates, and for what they had accomplished together as a team.
That’s the kind of teammate Lexi Sun appears to be, and that’s the type of culture John Cook has created in his program.
So much had been made of the 2021 recruiting class for so long. It would be understandable if the team’s veterans had felt some type of way about that attention, especially when the message was that Cook didn’t recruit those highly-touted freshman to sit on the bench. Yet the freshman pins said the veterans, Sun included, made them feel welcome from day one.
Cook made it very clear that every job would be up for grabs and that there would be an open competition in practice every day. He tried nearly every combination possible at the pin-hitter positions during the nonconference, giving each of them a chance to show she belonged on the court, but none of them truly clicked.
When Big Ten play began, Cook decided to roll with a freshman at each pin — Lindsay Krause on the right and Ally Batenhorst on the left, with Kubik filling the other left-side spot and playing all six rotations.
Sun got her shot off the bench in a couple of early Big Ten matches as Batenhorst struggled, and Cook slid her back into the starting lineup for the last stretch of conference play. Even so, she struggled to reach the level at which she had played the previous three seasons, for whatever reason.
In the past, going through a season like this might have been devastating for her. But over the last couple of years, Sun said she learned how to separate her self-worth from volleyball.
“First and foremost, not placing my worth and my identity in the sport of volleyball, that’s been the biggest thing and I think that has translated into every aspect of my life of just being confident in who I am,” Sun told me way back in August, when I interviewed her for my magazine profile. “I think the other thing is just being vulnerable. For so long I was always so worried about what I was supposed to be or like this is what I’m supposed to act like or this is what I’m supposed to play like, and instead of focusing on those things, just focusing on who I actually am and what I’m actually doing.
“I think in taking the pressure off myself, it’s been really helpful to focus on my teammates and how I can help them in those tough situations and stuff like that. It’s definitely been a process and I would say I’m not even close to the same person I am now than I was when I first got here. I’m very, very grateful for my time here at Nebraska, not only growing as a volleyball player but as a person and just having that support system of the coaches and our staff and the teammates and my family and everything.”
Sun said part of the reason she returned was getting another shot to leave a legacy in Lincoln. She didn’t want her career to end with that 3-1 loss to Texas in a mostly-empty CHI Health Center Omaha back in April.
In that moment after the match, with the cameras catching her reaction, I think she did as much to add to her legacy as anything she could have done on the court during play.
Another reason she came back is to get one more crack at winning a national championship (she transferred to Nebraska the season after the Huskers’ last title in 2017). After a spectacular performance by Nebraska’s defense and the freshman pins that leap-frogged her on the depth chart, that dream is still alive.
The Huskers will face No. 3 Pittsburgh in Columbus on Thursday night, following the first semifinal between No. 1 Louisville and No. 4 Wisconsin. The winners will square off for the title on Saturday night. I have no idea if we’ll see Sun on the court this week, but either way she’s played a big role in the Huskers making it this far.
All-American. Business woman. Great teammate. Role model. Sun has proven to be all these things and more during her four years in Lincoln, and I think that will be her legacy long after her playing days are over.
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.