Nebraska volleyball announced its team captains for the 2022-23 season on Tuesday: seniors Kenzie Knuckles and Madi Kubik… and sophomore Lexi Rodriguez.
The last two sophomores who served as captains were Nicklin Hames and Kelly Hunter, which is pretty terrific company for the libero from Sterling, Illinois. She’s only been on campus for just under 20 months but has assembled quite the résumé already.
Big Ten Freshman of the Week (four times). Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week (twice). Nebraska Female Newcomer of the Year. Big Ten All-Freshman Team. All-Big Ten First Team. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. AVCA North All-Region and North Region Freshman of the Year. AVCA All-America First Team. AVCA National Freshman of the Year.
She also received multiple academic honors in addition to everything she accomplished on the court.
Back in October of 2021, Lauren Stivrins said something about Rodriguez that certainly caught my attention.
“It’s very clear that she is one of the greatest defensive people to pretty much ever come through this program,” Stivrins said. “She’s so talented and we’ve seen that from day one, so it’s no surprise that she keeps getting these accolades and she’s one of those people that really doesn’t care about any of that stuff and just wants to get the ball up. So I think she’s a great addition to this team and I think she’s only going to continue to get better and better each day.”
Rodriguez had been playing for about two months at that point, though she had already captured one Big Ten Defensive Player the Week and two Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Some phenomenal defensive players have suited up for the Huskers over the years, and Stivrins played with a couple of them. To already include Rodriguez among them at that point in her career speaks to her immense talent and potential.
With veterans like Stivrins, Hames, Lexi Sun, Kayla Caffey and Kenzie Knuckles on the team last year to handle the leadership, Rodriguez was content to quietly go about her business and do her job. Coach John Cook challenged her take a step forward as a leader during the offseason and she responded by earning the captain’s role of the U21 USA National Team for the Pan American Cup during the summer. Cook said that experienced opened the door for the coaches to push Rodriguez to embrace the burden of leadership even more.
“We’ve talked to her about being a leader here at some point, but that really facilitated and sped up that conversation,” Cook said. “If you can get a libero leading out there, because who’s out there the most? if you run a 5-1 it’s a setter and then it’s a libero and your outside hitters. So if you can have your libero be in leadership, run the court a little bit, it really helps.”
I expected Rodriguez to become a captain at some point; that it happened so quickly gain speaks to how special of a player she is and has the chance to become.
The other two definitely didn’t come as a surprise, considering they were the program’s representatives at Big Ten Volleyball Media Days in Chicago earlier this month.
Knuckles was named a captain the same season that she technically lost her job to a freshman in Rodriguez. After spending two years as the team’s libero, Knuckles slid into the center back defensive specialist role, a position change that she embraced after a brief transition period. The way she handled that situation speaks to her team-first mindset and how deserving she was of that captain title.
Knuckles shared some insight into her leadership style with local media up in Chicago.
“I would say something that I really focus on is just building relationships with my teammates and being able to connect with them on a personal level,” Knuckles said. “I love to call myself a mini-Brett. Brett [Haskell] is our sports psychologist and I love her to death. She’s like, a savior. I absolutely love her and I’ve learned a lot from her and things that she’s provided me that I try to take with me to help the younger girls on the team or even the older ones too. I just really like to get to know people and understand why they do the things that they do, and I think that helps me understand them as a volleyball player. Just kind of incorporating that and being able to be a safe place for my teammates, that’s something I’ve worked on and I think that it’s been really helpful for me and them.”
Kubik is a first-time captain, but she’s put in the work as a four-year starter and six-rotation player for the Huskers. She was the only unanimous preseason All-Big Ten selection, which speaks to the respect she’s garnered among the league’s coaches. Knuckles hinted back in Chicago that Kubik was stepping up her leadership as well.
“Madi has been a leader,” Knuckles said. “She is the leader. She’s done a really great job; I would say she is more of a lead by example as well and she has that authority of ‘OK, this is what we should do,’ and people kind of latch onto that. So that’s been really, really good.”
Cook said during the Husker Volleyball Show on Sports Nightly on Tuesday that he feels great about his two seniors and how hard they’ve worked to put themselves in this leadership position.
The notable absence from the announcement was Hames, the three-year captain who returned for a super senior year to play a new position and prepare to enter the coaching world. Stivrins said when she returned for her extra season of eligibility that she didn’t want to be a captain again, but her teammates wouldn’t let her off the hook. Hames is a different story, though she will continue to be an important presence on the team and a resource for the named captains to lean on.
“Nicklin has passed on the torch and I think she’s having fun, she’s relaxed and she knows her role,” Cook said on Sports Nightly. “She knows in her role right now those other guys need to lead.”
With the season-opener just a few short days away, the top-ranked Huskers appear to be in good hands from a leadership perspective.
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.