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Padding the Stats: On Nicklin Hames’ Return and Kennedi Orr’s Time

January 12, 2022

If you haven’t heard the news, Nicklin Hames is coming back to Nebraska for a fifth year.

It wasn’t too hard to miss considering her dad broke the news on a podcast I had previously never heard of, but Hames did confirm it herself on social media on Sunday.

People asked me whether I thought she’d return multiple times throughout the last month, and to be honest, the way things appear to be playing out is pretty much the only scenario I didn’t even consider. She’s coming back, but not as a setter.

In hindsight, however, it’s the path that makes the most sense for all parties if Hames desired to keep playing. It was just hard to envision a three-year captain who has been setting for four years and holds the school’s rally scoring era record for assists wanting to come back and play another position. Credit to Hames, who once again is showing what an incredible teammate she is and why she’s been a team captain the last three years.

What position will she play? I’m not sure if even she knows. She’s an elite defensive player and one of Nebraska’s best servers, so there are certainly other areas in which she can contribute besides setting. Anni Evans’ role as a serving sub and double-substitution setter is an option, though that’s a pretty limited role for someone of Hames’ accomplishments. She could play a full-time defensive specialist role, but all three of Nebraska’s back-row specialists — libero Lexi Rodriguez, Keonilei Akana and Kenzie Knuckles — are set to return, and that doesn’t even take into account Ally Batenhorst or Lindsay Krause potentially developing into a six-rotation player next season.

John Cook will have some tough decisions to make, but however he decides to use Hames I’m sure she’ll be up for the challenge. She played all over the court in high school, from setter to libero to opposite hitter, so she’ll probably have experience no matter what Cook asks of her.

Nebraska very easily could have just run it back with Hames as the setter. After all, she has more assists than all but one player in program history, and she’s led the Huskers to two national championship matches and two regional final appearances during her career. Nearly every setter in the country would love to have that kind of a résumé.

I’m not expert, so take this with a grain of salt if you wish, but I do think Nebraska probably bumped up against its ceiling with Hames as its setter. As good as she is in so many areas, it felt to me like she was just a bit short of the elite tier of offensive setters in terms of placement and decision-making, and I think that had as much to do with Nebraska hitting its lowest percentage in at least the last 39 years this past season. As fired up as she, her teammates and the fans get when she records a kill, they’re pretty far and in-between, and that limits Nebraska’ offense as well.

As her father, Jason Hames, said during that podcast, it’s Kennedi Orr’s time now. The top-ranked player in the 2021 recruiting class spent most of last season watching Hames and learning as much as she could while developing in the background. Nebraska fans got a brief glimpse of her in the opening weekend while Hames recovered from an ankle injury, but that was her first real action since tearing her ACL during her senior season of high school.

Nebraska Cornhuskers setter Kennedi Orr sets the ball during their annual Red White scrimmage

Nebraska setter Kennedi Orr sets the ball during the annual Red-White scrimmage at the Devaney Center on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. Photo by Eric Francis.

Now Orr will have had a full year-and-a-half from her injury to fully recover plus a full season of practice to learn the ins and outs of being a setter at Nebraska. At 6-foot, Orr is a different kind of a setter with her own strengths, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do. There’s certainly no guarantee that Nebraska will go further with Orr running the show, but I do think it’s time to find out.

Credit again goes to Hames, because when Orr committed to Nebraska she obviously had no idea that a pandemic was coming that would scramble the eligibility calendar. Without COVID-19 the 2021 season would have been the only one with both setters on the roster, and it would’ve been Orr’s show to run in 2022 anyway. With Hames giving up her position, it means Orr won’t have to wait two full years before getting a shot to start, and since she played in the first two matches she burned a season of eligibility in 2021 anyway. Perhaps she could have redshirted like Kelly Hunter did in 2014 to save her three season of remaining eligibility, but now she won’t have to make that decision.

Regardless of the role she plays, Nebraska is better with Hames on the team. The other part of her announcement is that she’ll be back in 2023 as well as a graduate assistant, and that part I did see coming. The daughter of two volleyball coaches, coaching is in Hames’ blood and with her leadership skills, coaching seemed like the natural next step for her, and who better to learn from than Cook?

With Hames’ decision out of the way, that leaves Nebraska with just one senior’s future up in the air.

On Monday, Callie Schwarzenbach — who had previously entered her name into the transfer portal — announced that she’s following Tyler Hildebrand to Long Beach State for her extra season of eligibility. I’m happy for her because that’s a great fit — she gets to drop down to a lower level where she has a chance to earn a full-time role after serving as a reserve and injury fill-in the last two season at Nebraska. Embracing that role after starting for two years can’t have been easy, but Schwarzenbach was ready whenever Cook called her number. She’s a terrific blocker but just couldn’t find a way to develop enough offensively to nail down a starting spot in the Big Ten once Cook added depth at that position. Now she’ll get to close out her career playing for a coach with who she’s already comfortable.

Now we wait to hear from middle blocker Kayla Caffey, who could return for a seventh year of college if she wants to. She already has her master’s and would be 25 years old if she returns, but as she said in November, no one is in a rush to go to work.

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