If there’s one major area in need of improvement for Nebraska volleyball heading into the 2022 season, it’s attack efficiency from the pins.
Despite making it all the way to the national championship, the Huskers finished with the program’s lowest hitting efficiency in at least the past 39 seasons, .222. The five outside hitters combined for a .187 hitting percentage.
Madi Kubik was the one constant in the lineup, playing in 118 of the Huskers’ 121 sets. She played at a Big Ten Player of the Year level deep into conference play before tailing off in efficiency later in the season. Beyond her was a rotating cast of characters consisting of super senior Lexi Sun and freshmen Lindsay Krause, Whitney Lauenstein and Ally Batenhorst.
Krause, a dominant six-rotation left-side hitter at Omaha Skutt, spent most of the season as the starting opposite hitter, averaging 2.38 kills per set on .225 hitting while playing in the front row. At different points, however, Coach John Cook turned to fellow in-state product Lauenstein at that spot as she started three matches and played in 67 sets while averaging 0.93 kills per set on .130 hitting.
Similarly, Cook went back and forth between Sun (2.26 kills per set on .153 hitting in 70 sets) and Batenhorst (1.99 kills per set on .155 hitting in 86 sets) as the second hitter on the left.
Cook expressed some regret with the way he handled the pins after the season, but in his defense, I’m not sure there was a right answer with the lack of consistency throughout the whole position group.
Sun has exhausted her eligibility, and Madi Kubik’s younger sister, Hayden, has taken her place. The younger Kubik finished 18th in PrepVolleyball.com‘s 2022 rankings before enrolling at Nebraska for the spring semester and participating in the beach and spring indoor training season.
When the Huskers took the floor at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island for the team’s spring exhibition match against Kansas on April 23, Cook opted to start Kubik and Krause on the left and Lauenstein on the right.
Madi Kubik led the way for the Huskers with a match-high 20 kills on .311 hitting, seven digs, three assists, two aces and one block.
“Madi, she’s kind of our rock,” Cook said after the match. “She’s one of the few players in the country who does everything really well. She won game three for us serving, she made some great digs, she had some huge kills when we needed them. She struggled passing tonight which I did not see that coming; she’s a good passer. She’s one of those true six-rotation players that are hard to find and every team needs one.”
While Krause made her Husker debut on the right side, Cook has told her her future lies on the left, and based on the lineup in Grand Island, that future may come as soon as this season. However, she struggled in the match, recording three kills and three errors on 16 attempts.
“She’s been crushing it in practice, but tonight, I don’t know,” Cook said. “She wasn’t very good. We rotate everywhere, so we haven’t done a set lineup. I’ve trained all our hitters on both sides and she’s been our best left side hitter in training, but she struggled tonight.”
The match may have been something of a missed opportunity for Krause, but practice is where players earn Cook’s trust and she earned some heavy praise from her coach for her work this spring.
Batenhorst replaced Krause in the second set, though she only performed marginally better than Krause, finishing with four kills and two errors on 18 swings with two digs and a block.
“Those guys are both very even and they’ve been playing both left and right,” Cook said about Batenhorst and Krause. “We wanted to keep Whitney in there so that was just kind of a logical sub. I tried to play everybody tonight; it’s just so hard in volleyball to get everybody in there and not lose complete rhythm and momentum. But I think I got everybody in.”
Lauenstein played the least of the three freshman pins last season, but Cook made sure to get her plenty of run against the Jayhawks.
“Whitney’s a very inexperienced player,” Cook said. “We kept telling the setters to set her as much as we can because obviously she makes big kills. She’s got to learn how to do little plays and how to use the block a little more, but she’s learning. This is why tonight is such a huge match for her to play in and continue to get experience.”
Lauenstein finished second on the team with 12 kills (tying Kansas’ leader, Anezka Szabo, a former Husker) and showed her defensive ability with a match-high eight blocks, though she also led the Huskers with seven attack errors, sinking her hitting percentage to .156.
“I think she just is an awesome weapon for our offense and they obviously have to respect her when they’re defending her,” Madi Kubik said. “She has the capability to shut people down and kind of take over a match, so I just think that’s a really awesome thing that we have on our team.”
Hayden Kubik didn’t play until late and she only took one swing, but she made the most of it by recording the match-point kill. While the younger Kubik wasn’t out there for long, the exhibition was the first opportunity for the Kubik sisters to play together in Nebraska uniforms.
“I just think it’s really special because not a lot of people get to play a sport with their sibling and to be able to play college volleyball with her is unreal,” Madi Kubik said. “And this has always been her dream, so I’m just so excited for her and for the future and what that looks like. So it’s really special and fun.”
The key to winning it all in 2022 for Nebraska very well might lie with the outside hitters. With elite back-row players returning and the edition of a terrific blocking middle in Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord, the Huskers should once again be difficult to score against. However, Nebraska will need more consistent termination from Kubik and a leap from the trio of second-year pins in order to make it to Omaha.
The exhibition match showed Nebraska still has a ways to go, but the talent is certainly there for a special season and Cook has a few more months to tinker and train before the Huskers need to be ready to go.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.