The march to Tampa, Florida, for the 2023 Final Four officially begins on Tuesday for the Nebraska volleyball team as the Huskers open up preseason practice with a two-a-day.
Nebraska returns six players with starting experience and adds the top recruiting class in the country featuring five talented freshmen and a proven transfer in Merritt Beason. Coach John Cook said his main focus heading into camp is deciding on a starting lineup and identifying roles.
“We’ve got a lot of decisions to make, lineup decisions to make,” Cook said at Big Ten Media Days. “I know a little bit more after Brazil but I’m still not sure exactly what we want to do. So we’re going to spend the next few days as a staff kind of deciding how we want to start and get going. Our window is so short; three weeks and we’re playing.”
Despite the team’s youth, Cook said the team is as prepared for camp as it can be after a full spring of beach and indoor training together plus the team’s trip to Brazil and the 10 practices that preceded it.
“We’re going to do less two-a-days because I feel like this team is pretty far ahead of where their skills are, knowing what we need to do,” Cook said. “They’ve had a lot of reps. So I’ll give the roping horse analogy. The older horses kind of come out, you do about six steers and if they do well you put them away. The younger ones, you’re doing 20 steers. I think these guys are at a point right now where we’re going to just be figuring out our lineup. They know what they need to do.”
Cook and his staff used the spring and summer to install most of the team’s drills and systems, meaning camp will be heavy on competition. While the team’s two captains seem like sure bets to be in the lineup — Lexi Rodriguez at libero and Merritt Beason at opposite hitter — the rest of the lineup is hard to predict at this point. The returners have all made an impact at one point or another while the freshmen have shown they’re ready to push the veterans right away.
“It’s very competitive and we’ll let them go out a little bit and try to decide some things, and we’ll see,” Cook said. “Because now they’re going to feel the pressure. Brazil is no pressure; now it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got two weeks and we’re playing.’ So they’re going to feel, I think, the pressure of having to prove themselves, and we’ll see how it works out. But I can tell you this, everybody can play. There’s not one person I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, we need to redshirt that player, or they’re not going to help.’ Everybody can play.”
Nebraska has four outside hitters competing for two starting spots. After bouncing back and forth between the left and right pins, Lindsay Krause has settled in at outside hitter and led all Nebraska’s pins with more than 22 attacks in hitting at .269. Ally Batenhorst logged 14 starts last season and played all six rotations after Kenzie Knuckles’ season-ending knee injury late in 2022. Hayden Kubik only played in eight sets as a freshman last season but came up big in Nebraska’s win over Creighton. Finally, Harper Murray was PrepVolleyball.com‘s top-ranked recruit in the 2023 class and the 2022 Gatorade National Player of the Year and looks like a candidate to play six rotations from day one.
Cook said his two setters, junior Kennedi Orr and freshman Bergen Reilly, graded out evenly throughout the spring and summer practices and competitions. The plan appears to be returning to a 5-1 system, which means one setter playing all the way around.
Nebraska has three underclassman middle blockers who were all top-10 recruits competing for two starting spots. Bekka Allick had a terrific first season with the Huskers, earning All-Big Ten Freshman and All-Big Ten Second Team honors while leading the team in hitting (.326) and solo blocks (12), and seems like a safe bet to grab one of those spots. However, Maggie Mendelson is still the youngest player on the team heading into her second season and has gotten the chance to focus solely on middle blocker after spending some time at opposite hitter last year. Freshman Andi Jackson is a dynamic player in her own right and is arguably the most explosive athlete on the team.
In addition to who starts, Cook also has some decisions to make about which of the pins will play all six rotations — which could include Beason in a wrinkle Cook hasn’t had available to him at Nebraska previously — and where freshman defensive specialist Laney Choboy will fit in. He’ll have to identify the best servers as well. At this point, Cook isn’t sure when he wants to have those decisions made, but he’s hoping the process won’t drag out into the season.
“I used to say, let’s go into nonconference and kind of work it out,” Cook said. “But now you can’t afford to lose a nonconference match, because we’re trying to get to a point where we can host a regional or be in a position to do that. So you’ve got to come out and hit the ground running. Plus, I think we have a pretty challenging nonconference schedule and we’re going to have to be ready for that. So it’s not like we’re just going to roll out different lineups all the time. I’d like to see us get in some type of a lineup that we’re playing that first weekend.”
The downside to having a team with so much depth is that not everyone who might deserve to see significant playing time will be able to, meaning talented players will be watching from the bench more often than not. The captains don’t see that being a problem for this team, however.
“I think at the end of the day, every single person on this team wants to win,” Beason said. “So you have to remain selfless in that. As captains, as everyone, as a member of this team, you have to understand that whatever puts the team in the best position to win is what Coach is going to go with and it has nothing to do with you as a person in that moment, and it could change from game to game … I think this team has a really good grasp of that and they understand that it doesn’t matter who it is, but if that’s our best position to win, then that’s OK. And we just have to respect that and understand that it doesn’t make you less of a good person or doesn’t devalue your worth in any way.”
The process to answer those lineup questions begins on Tuesday, and fans will get a chance to see how it all plays out first at the Red-White Scrimmage on Aug. 19 and then at the season-opener against Utah State on Aug. 25.