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Nicklin Hames (1)
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Nicklin Hames’ Role, Keonilei Akana’s Departure and John Cook’s Puzzle

April 27, 2022

When Nicklin Hames announced she planned to return for a fifth season at Nebraska, she said it would be in a new role.

After four years as the team’s starting setter, it appeared as if she was ready to pass the reins to a successor, though she didn’t provide any details about what her new role may be.

Coach John Cook played coy as well when asked about her new role last week ahead of the team’s spring exhibition against Kansas.

“That’s new to me,” Cook said about the new role. “Nicklin has been jumping around different positions. She’s doing a fantastic job. I’ve never seen her so happy. She’s playing really, really well. She’s being a great leader. And I think she’s excited about her fifth year and then also, she talked to me today about when she could start being in coaching meetings and things like that. So she’s getting excited about her future, to go into coaching and to get her master’s program here finished. So we’re going to be starting on that this summer. I think she’s just excited for this next chapter of her life and giving it everything she’s got, whatever role that is for the fall. So it’s been awesome.”

So Cook at least acknowledged that they’ve been experimenting with her position, and earlier in the spring he told Hail Varsity and the Lincoln Journal Star that Hames could become a “great libero-type player.”

However, when the Huskers took the court at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island for the exhibition, Hames was right back where she’s been throughout the past four years — on the floor as the starting setter. She played the majority of the match, putting up 38 assists, eight digs, two kills and one ace in a four-set Nebraska win.

“She’s our best setter right now,” Cook said afterward. “I want us to be smooth, and we messed around with lineups, 6-2s and everything, and this is what we just felt was best for this match.”

Hames’ heir apparent is Kennedi Orr, the top-ranked recruit in the 2021 class according to PrepVolleyball.com. Orr tore her ACL during her senior year of high school, then enrolled at Nebraska in January of 2021. She spent that spring season in the program rehabbing and learning how things work at Nebraska. By the time the fall season rolled around, Orr had been cleared to play and she got her first taste of college volleyball early as Hames missed the opening weekend with an ankle injury.

Orr split time with Anni Evans during Nebraska’s first two matches, putting up 51 assists and 20 digs. Then she sat and watched the rest of the season as Hames didn’t miss another match.

Orr missed some time during the beach season with swelling in her knee, and Cook admitted she was a bit behind because of it. She returned to practice well before the spring match yet only played enough against Kansas to record two assists and one dig.

Hames and Cook may have a different role in mind for the Tennessee native’s fifth season, but in order for that to become a reality Orr needs to prove to Cook that she’s ready to take on that role. Hames has four years of starting experience under her belt and is a fiery leader around whom her teammates rally. Cook needs to put the best team he can out there on the floor, and at least on Saturday that included Hames at setter instead of Orr.

Fortunately, Orr has four months to make up that ground and continue to develop as a setter and leader.

If Orr does indeed take the starting setter spot, what might the new role for Hames look like? Perhaps Tuesday’s news of Keonilei Akana entering the transfer portal provided some clarity there.

Hames has been an elite setter, and, as Cook suggested, she could be a great defensive specialist. Lexi Rodriguez has the libero job locked up for the next three seasons, and Hames isn’t taking that from her.

Side note: Akana’s decision to leave despite playing a big role the last two seasons could be as simple as that — she wants to play libero and knows that won’t happen at Nebraska. We saw a similar departure a few years ago when Megan Miller transferred to Northwestern after two seasons at Nebraska. 

Akana led the Huskers in aces and was third in digs this past season. She’s certainly a big loss. However, the Huskers aren’t lacking in options in the back row. In fact, Cook adjusted his rotations to take advantage of his surplus of back-row talent, leading to the formation of the “Legion of Boom.” He sacrificed some offensive firepower to go all in on defense as Rodriguez often shared the back row with both Akana and Kenzie Knuckles.

Knuckles will be back for her senior season as a defensive specialist while Rodriguez is looking to build on a strong first season that earned her national freshman of the year honors. Maisie Boesiger has joined the group as a walk-on as well this spring to provide depth after a record-breaking career at Norris as a setter. Even without Akana, Nebraska has plenty of talent in the back row.

And perhaps Hames’ new role could be Akana’s old one. We know Hames can dig the ball with the best of them and she’s one of the team’s best servers. Having a defensive specialist capable of distributing the ball as well as any setter is probably an appealing concept for Cook.

Between Hames’ role, which pins start and where and Kayla Caffey’s status, Cook has a lot of questions to answer before the season opener rolls around. The good news is there doesn’t seem to be a bad option with the level at which Cook and his staff have recruited. He’s choosing between a four-year starter and a No. 1 recruit at setter. Each of the pins on the roster was a top-20 recruit coming out of high school. If Caffey doesn’t play, Cook will simply have to throw one of the top two middle blockers in the 2022 class, Bekka Allick and Maggie Mendelson, into the fire right away next to Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord.

There are a lot of puzzle pieces in Lincoln right now and I’m looking forward to seeing how they all come together come the fall.

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