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Padding the Stats: Powerful Pin Play Key to Championship Run in 2023

April 26, 2023

Nebraska fans will get their first look at the 2023 Nebraska volleyball team on Saturday as the Huskers take on Wichita State at the Bison Activity Dome in Central City in their annual spring exhibition.

The Huskers lost six players who filled key roles last season and replaced them with five freshmen and a junior transfer. Cook said on Tuesday that the Huskers haven’t played any 6-2 this spring. Between the return to the 5-1 and the six new faces, the volleyball on Saturday will likely look significantly different than what Husker fans saw on the court last fall.

Lexi Rodriguez likely has the starting libero job locked up, but there are position battles everywhere else and it will be fun to see who takes the court first on Saturday.

The volleyball offseason consists of several parts at Nebraska: beach season, spring indoor training and exhibition, a Brazilian tour (this year), summer workouts and preseason training. A couple weeks back, I spoke with assistant coach Jaylen Reyes. My final question for him was simple: what do you want to see from the team this offseason?

“Honestly, volleyball-wise, what I want to see is can we up our kill percentage?” Reyes said. “We need to kill more volleyballs … Obviously keeping the errors down, but we just need to kill more volleyballs. If you picked a theme for me for the whole summer, it’s how can we find more ways to kill the volleyball? “

Last year, Nebraska was fifth in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .244 and fourth in kills per set at 13.41. The hitting percentage was actually a step forward from the previous season (.222) but a step back in kills average (13.86). The Huskers hit .265 or better in each of my first six seasons on the beat and averaged better than 14.0 kills per set in four of them. Over the last two seasons, Nebraska’s defense has been as elite as it’s ever been, but the firepower just wasn’t there to win a championship.

For comparison’s sake, Nebraska’s 2015 title team hit .274 with 14.52 kills per set (highest average in the last eight years) and its 2017 championship squad hit .282 with 14.22 kills per set (third-highest).

“I know it sounds really simple, but we’re really good and John’s teams historically have been really good at that,” Reyes said. “Last couple years, we haven’t been as good as we wanted to and as we need to win. The two teams that I felt like were the best killing volleyballs, Wisconsin two years ago and Texas last year, it’s no secret they won a national championship. So if we want to win a national championship, which I know everybody wants us to do and we all want to do, and that’s the goal, that’s the expectation, we need to up killing volleyballs, plain and simple.”

Nebraska’s top two kills leaders from last season — Madi Kubik and Whitney Lauenstein — are gone, though they hit just .241 and .238, respectively. The Huskers’ top returner is Lindsay Krause, who averaged 2.26 kills per set and led Nebraska’s pins with a .270 hitting percentage while playing primarily on the high side. She’ll play on the left side this fall where she’ll compete alongside Ally Batenhorst (2.33 kills per set on .190 hitting), Hayden Kubik (seven kills in eight sets played as a freshman last season) and freshman Harper Murray (PrepVolleyball.com‘s second-ranked 2023 recruit) for two starting spots.

With Lauenstein gone, Krause on the left and Maggie Mendelson focusing solely on middle blocker, the right pin will look quite a bit different in 2023 as well. Cook targeted Florida transfer Merritt Beason (3.35 kills per set on .261 hitting) to fill that starting spot, though freshman Caroline Jurevicius (PrepVolleyball/com’s top-ranked opposite and ninth-ranked player) is competing as well.

“We have some people coming back into roles, but we’re going to kind of have some new roles in the pin, whichever way people play,” Reyes said. “What pin hitter steps up this year and is going to be like, ‘I’m going to be the reason why we get to the Final Four’? What pin hitter is going to do it? Because at the end of the day, you kind of ride and die with your pin play. Usually the team that has the best pin play wins it, and that was definitely the case last year.”

I’d be willing to bet Beason and Krause will fill two of the starting pin spots, but I’m not as sure about the third one. If Batenhorst wants to hold off her younger challengers, she’ll need to up her efficiency significantly, though she did gain back-row experience last season after Kenzie Knuckles’ season-ending injury. What does Kubik look like with a year in the program under her belt? Is Murray ready to play right away? Beason played six rotations at Florida, but what about the rest of the pins?

Madi Kubik developed into a terrific all-around player during her career, but she couldn’t ever find season-long consistency as a dominant terminator. Can any of the left sides accomplish what she couldn’t and approach what Mikaela Foecke provided for the scarlet and cream?

Of course, a good hitting percentage isn’t solely on the pins themselves. It’s a collaborative effort between the passers, setter and hitters, and both the other positions have seen change as well. Knuckles is gone and freshman Laney Choboy will look to replace her at defensive specialist as a complement to Rodriguez at libero. The setter spot might be the position most up for grabs as junior Kennedi Orr and freshman Bergen Reilly continue to battle it out. The setter play had a huge role in Nebraska’s offensive struggles the last couple of years and they’ll need to see significant improvement in that area in order to take a step forward.

“Killing the ball is passing, it’s setting and it’s attacking, so it’s not just ‘OK, hey attackers, you need to kill more balls,’” Reyes said. “Obviously if we can pass, that increases your chances, and if our setter can keep us all in rhythm and have some deception and run a diversified offense, that also kind of ups being able to kill the ball. We need to find ways to kill more balls. It’s as plain and simple as that, and that’s how you really score in volleyball.”

Though there is still plenty of work to do to solidify rotations before the season-opener in August, Saturday will provide our first glimpse of what the 2023 Huskers might look like, and I’ll be watching the pins as closely as any position. 

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