Mystery was an important part of Nebraska volleyball’s last two seasons as John Cook and the Nebraska fan base alike waited to hear the final decisions from the program’s seniors who still had an extra season of eligibility available to them.
In year one post-2020 COVID-19 season, Lauren Stivrins and Lexi Sun both opted to return for an extra season while Jazz Sweet and Hayley Densberger chose to move on. Last year, Nicklin Hames chose to return for a fifth season while Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach chose to spend their extra season elsewhere.
Those were all essentially post-season decisions. When asked about their decisions down the stretch of the season, the answer was almost always some variation of “I’ll sit down and make a decision after the season.”
Nebraska only has two true seniors this year in Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles, and they both eliminated the suspense on Tuesday by announcing they’ve already decided they won’t return next season.
First and foremost, I respect and appreciate the two of them making the decisions when they did. I imagine the last couple offseason have been trying to plan for the future and build up their rosters while waiting to hear from their seniors with eligibility remaining. Jaz Shelley told me at Big Ten Media Days that she wanted to have her decision made prior to the end of the season precisely for that reason — she wants to give the coaching staff a chance to know whether or not to include her in their future plans when it comes to roster building.
Additionally, both Kubik and Knuckles referenced the younger players on the team now who are ready to take on more prominent roles. Lexi Rodriguez was already voted a captain this season as a sophomore, but she and her fellow 2021 signees in Lindsay Krause, Whitney Lauenstein and Ally Batenhorst will all be upperclassmen as juniors next season.
Will any of those pins be ready to play six rotations next season? Would one of Batenhorst or Krause break out as the No. 1 option on the left side? We likely would not have learned the answer to those questions had Kubik returned in the role she currently holds.
Knuckles went one step further and referenced the incoming players as well. The Huskers just signed a five-player class ranked No. 1 nationally in 2023 that includes the second-ranked outside hitter (and second-ranked player overall) in Harper Murray, the top-ranked libero (and fifth-ranked player) in Laney Choboy and the top-ranked opposite hitter (and seventh-best player overall) in Caroline Jurevicius. Kubik and Knuckles moving on opens the door for those freshmen who very well might be good enough to play from day one to do so.
It’s also worth noting that Kubik’s younger sister Hayden is on the team, and while the two seem to be cherishing this opportunity to play together, Madi returning for another year would essentially block her sister from having a chance to move up the depth chart and see the court.
As of now and barring any attrition, Nebraska appears to have all 12 of its scholarships spoken for next season. With NIL rules now in place, it’s easier to find ways to get around the scholarship limit, but unless Nebraska were to lose two players to the portal without adding anyone, Cook likely would have had to get creative to make room for everybody.
As Knuckles said during her turn at the podium, she and Kubik will have four-and-a-half years in Lincoln at the end of this school year as the duo enrolled in January of 2019.
Would Nebraska be a better team with the two of them back next season? Undoubtedly. But for all the reasons laid out above and more, it makes sense for the two of them to move on to the next stage of their lives. Personally, I never expected to see either of them back.
This means that unless Cook finds another Kaitlyn Hord in the transfer portal, Nebraska will not have a super senior on the roster next season. While having fifth- and sixth-year players has benefitted a lot of teams over the past two years (perhaps none more so than Wisconsin), with the rate that Nebraska has been recruiting recently, Nebraska doesn’t need to beg its best players to come back for another year.
The only player set to be on the roster next season who was on the team in 2020 is walk-on Anni Evans, who will be the only senior on the team as of now. She’ll be the last Husker who has to face the decision that Kubik and Knuckles just made recently. As a walk-on, she’s in a different situation than most of Nebraska’s previous super senior candidates. Densberger is the only non-scholarship player who had the choice to return, and she moved on.
While the blanket eligibility freeze seemed to be well-intentioned (or perhaps simply an easy move to earn positive publicity if you’re more skeptical), it has thrown college athletics into a bit of chaos over the past couple years, especially with the rise in popularity of the transfer portal and, more recently, the implementation of NIL opportunities. While coaches across the country may be glad to get some of their best players back for another year, I’d be willing to bet most of them will be happier once all of the COVID-19 players cycle through and it once again becomes easy to understand remaining eligibility.
Nebraska volleyball is already there thanks to the decisions made by Kubik and Knuckles, who both have made immense contributions to the program over the last four years and who both look to have bright futures in whatever they decide to pursue next.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.