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Padding the Stats: Respect for a Tough Decision

January 18, 2023

Tuesday provided some clarity to a situation that had become cloudy ever since Florida opposite hitter Merritt Beason announced that she was transferring to Nebraska nearly a month ago.

At the time, the Huskers appeared to have a full team. However, when announcing Beason’s addition, Coach John Cook referenced the roster “undergoing some adjustments since the season ended.” 

One of those “adjustments” was the departure of setter Anni Evans, who entered the transfer portal to seek a school that offers the graduate program she wishes to study. As a walk-on, however, her looking elsewhere doesn’t free up a scholarship for a newcomer to use.

Then came Whitney Lauenstein’s announcement on Tuesday that she is stepping away from the volleyball team to focus on herself, be with family and continue to heal from a familial tragedy. Her father, Ryan Lauenstein, died in February of 2021, just a couple months prior to her high school graduation.

Her decision serves as a much-needed reminder that athletes are people too, and no matter how talented or successful one may be, we as outsiders have no clue what is going on in their lives beyond the field of play.

Of Nebraska’s three highly-touted 2021 pin-hitter recruits, Lauenstein played and produced the least in year one. She was a phenomenal athlete coming out of Waverly (ranked 16th nationally by PrepVolleyball.com), but her skills were still a bit raw. She averaged 1.09 kills per set on .130 hitting, starting in just three of the 27 matches she played as a freshman.

However, no player made a bigger leap heading into the 2022 season than Lauenstein. Whatever she did during the offseason paid off in a big way as she played in all 32 matches with 29 starts and led the team in total points. It took her just six matches to surpass her 2021 kills total as she tore through the nonconference including a 25-kill performance against Creighton at CHI Health Center Omaha.

“Big Hit Whit” had learned how to better convert her high-flying athleticism into devastating power thanks to increased accuracy. She produced numerous highlights throughout the season, both offensive and defensive (she was as much of a force at the net blocking as she was attacking), and was a big part of the team’s success. She played with as much emotion on the court as anyone on the roster.

In a perfect world, Lauenstein would continue on with her career, reaching her full potential as an athlete in a Husker uniform and leading the program to great success. But this isn’t a perfect world.

For all the benefits — and there are many — being a student-athlete is hard. It’s incredibly demanding — physically, mentally and emotionally. To be the best requires a high degree of dedication and determination; you can’t be halfway in and expect to succeed, especially in a program like Nebraska volleyball. A half-hearted effort wouldn’t be fair to the athlete or the athlete’s teammates.

Based on her message to the fans, it appears Lauenstein determined she could no longer devote as much of herself as playing college volleyball at Nebraska requires, and I respect her greatly for having the courage to make that decision. She’s a key piece on one of the best college programs in the country, playing a sport she loves in front of 8,000 fans every week alongside teammates she cares for, all while having her collegiate education paid for. It’s something countless little girls in Nebraska grow up dreaming of having one day, and she made it happen for herself. It’s a lot to give up.

I was fortunate enough to cover a few of her matches in high school, and I also interviewed her for the Hail Varsity Magazine feature I wrote on the 2021 recruiting class that ran two years ago, almost to the day. The following is one of the quotes I included in that story, revealing the dedication to and love for the game Lauenstein had as the late-bloomer in a recruiting class otherwise filled with phenoms.

“I do take pride in it because I worked so hard for that spot,” Lauenstein told me. “I feel like so many more people can do the same thing I did, just working hard and applying yourself and really taking those simple steps of just going in for a couple of hours to do something that you love. But I really think it starts with passion because I really have passion for the sport. I love it. When I’m playing a sport, I’m only thinking about volleyball and how I can get better.”

It saddens me that circumstances have led to Lauenstein feeling the need to choose between herself and a sport that has clearly meant so much to her throughout her life. It’s been a privilege to tell at least a tiny bit of her story over these last three years. I wish her nothing but the best and am rooting for her to find peace and happiness wherever this next stage of her life may take her.

As for Nebraska, the show will go on. Cook moved quickly — as all coaches at the highest level of the sport must do — and added an experienced replacement in Beason. She’ll likely step right into the starting opposite hitter spot with two seasons of eligibility remaining, freeing up Lindsay Krause to shift to the left side permanently following the departure of Madi Kubik. Freshman Caroline Jurevicius, the top-ranked opposite hitter in the 2023 class, is joining the program this spring to bolster the depth on the right side as well.

Lauenstein leaves big shoes to fill, and I’ve already seen an outpouring of support from fans who will dearly miss watching her play at the Devaney Center. But Nebraska will be fine. It’s important that Lauenstein prioritizes her own wellbeing if she’s been struggling.

She’s much more than just a volleyball player, after all.

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