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Padding the Stats: Summer Volleyball Ponderings

June 15, 2022

We’re inching closer and closer to volleyball season with each passing day, and a big piece of the puzzle fell into place on Tuesday with the release of the Big Ten schedule.

The first thing I typically look at with a schedule release is the home-and-home match-ups; which teams will Nebraska play twice? Three of the seven on this year’s schedule finished in the top five of the conference standings last season — Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin.

Ohio State has won two of the last three meetings with Nebraska — including a 3-0 sweep last season — since its meteoric rise to joining the conference’s elite over the last two seasons. Purdue has beaten Nebraska just once in nine meetings since I started covering this beat in 2015. And of course there’s Wisconsin, who the Huskers haven’t beaten since September of 2017. You might remember their most recent meeting — the 2021 national championship match.

Almost as noteworthy are the top-half teams that the Huskers won’t see twice — Penn State, Illinois and Minnesota. 

It’s a shame to see the Nittany Lions on that list; Penn State-Nebraska is one of the best rivalries in the sport and has provided numerous classic match-ups over the years. However, if there’s a year for the two teams to only face each other once, it’s this season. Nobody knows what Penn State will look like without legendary coach Russ Rose, who retired after the 2021 season.

The Huskers do have the advantage of both the Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers visiting Lincoln. That means Kaitlyn Hord won’t be making a return trip to University Park during her lone season at Nebraska.

While the “who” is the first thing I look at and the “where” a close second, the “when” is a key factor as well. The schedule is balanced insofar as the Huskers will face five NCAA Tournament teams from 2021 in the first half of the schedule and five more in the second half. However, the Huskers will play on the road in seven of their first 11 matches before returning home for six of the last nine.

More importantly, four of the Huskers’ final five matches will be against other top teams — Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsins and Minnesota — with the final three coming at the Devaney Center. There’s a strong chance Nebraska could win or lose a conference title in the final weekend of the season with a set-up like that.

Before the Huskers head into conference play, however, they’ll have to make it through the nonconference slate, which features some tough tests and plenty of familiar faces. 

Nicklin Hames will get an opportunity to play against her younger sister, Kayleigh Hames, an outside hitter for Pepperdine. Tyler Hildebrand will return to Lincoln with his new Long Beach State team, and he’ll bring Callie Schwarzenbach with him. Nebraska will also face two other former assistant coaches in Kentucky’s Craig Skinner and Mississippi’s Kayla Banwarth.

As for further tests, the Huskers will welcome Stanford to town the same week they travel to Kentucky, and they’ll also get an early look at the Final Four site when they take on Creighton at CHI Health Center Omaha.

All things considered, the 2022 season has the chance to be pretty darn entertaining.

With the schedule in place, the remaining questions surrounding the program relate to personnel matters. John Cook shed some light on the two biggest ones on the most recent episode of his podcast, Kicking Back with the Cooks.

First, the setter position. When Hames announced she was coming back for another season, she said it would be in a new role, though Cook has been a bit coy about what that role might be. When the Huskers took on Kansas during their spring exhibition in Grand Island, Hames started and played most of the match at setter, and Cook said at that point she was their best option.

However, he offered more insight on that decision on the podcast, revealing that he wasn’t quite comfortable putting sophomore Kennedi Orr in position to start and play a full match thanks to an injury setback during the tail end of the beach season and start of indoor spring training.

“For her right now, if she can stay healthy, she has the keys to the program … This summer will be key for her,” Cook said. “She’s got to be in the gym every day, she’s got to really work hard and recondition herself to get ready to go through a long fall season. She did it last year with training; she wasn’t playing every match, but she knows he can do it. She just had a setback, which sometimes happens.”

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what the Huskers will look like with Orr getting a chance to run the show. Hames did a terrific job and is elite in multiple areas, but after four years —and coming off a season with the lowest hitting percentage in at least 40 years— I think it’s time to try something new. And with Hames still on the team, the Huskers will continue to benefit from her leadership and elite defensive ability while Orr — the top-ranked player in her recruiting class — settles in and figures things out at setter.

Unfortunately, Cook was far less committal about the other major personnel decision that is still up in the air: whether or not Kayla Caffey will return for another season. Cook said he and Caffey will have to make their final decision by July 1.

Hord has one starting middle blocker spot all but wrapped up, but she has a lot of time to make up since she didn’t get to compete or train at all this spring while finishing up the semester at Penn State.

“She’s starting from square one, like a true freshman coming in, but she got moved in,” Cook said. “Her dad brought her out and got her moved in her apartment, and that’s really good. So I think she’s really fired up, she’s really happy, she wants to go to work … I think she’s really excited and she’s in a leadership class that is a pre-session class she enrolled in that’s a lot of fun … She got in that class to start off her master’s program and that’s a great class to start off in and get some leadership … We’re really happy. She’s an awesome young lady and I’m really excited to be able to start working with her.”

Bekka Allick just wrapped up a gold medal run with the United States U21 team at the Pan American Cup while two-sport standout Maggie Mendelson will start working with the volleyball team after first spending time with the women’s basketball program. They were the top two middle blocker recruits in the 2022 class, according to PrepVolleyball.com, and while they may lack experience, they look to have plenty of talent. Mendelson, who is just 17, will get a chance to compete for a roster spot on the USA U19 team in July alongside 2023 Husker commits Harper Murray, Bergen Reilly and Andi Jackson.

The Huskers should have good options regardless of Caffey’s final decision, but they’d be a heck of a lot more experienced with her. Either way, we should know in the next couple of weeks.

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