John Cook is one of the top recruiters in college volleyball, bringing some of the best talent in the country to Lincoln year after year.
However, “Dream Bigger” is a program motto, and Cook did just that when he sat down to plan out his 2021 recruiting class. He and his staff identified and zeroed in on five of the best players in the country before they ever set foot on a high school court, and along the way to signing day, they recognized a late bloomer who improved too much to ignore.
One by one, each of the players Cook made a priority picked the Huskers, and on Nov. 11, 2020, Nebraska signed one of the best recruiting classes in school history — regardless of sport.
The story of the 2021 class truly began on July 11, 2017, at Nebraska’s Dream Team Camp. Some of the best high school players in the county descended on Lincoln to learn from Cook and his staff.
Among the campers were five special freshmen-to-be: outside hitters Lindsay Krause (Papillion, Nebraska) and Ally Batenhorst (Houston, Texas), middle blocker Rylee Gray (Elkhorn, Nebraska), setter Kennedi Orr (Eagan, Minnesota) and defensive specialist Lexi Rodriguez (Sterling, Illinois). Cook identified those five players as the future of Nebraska volleyball.
“We wanted to invite the best players that we were recruiting to come to that camp, and for whatever reason, the dates worked for everybody,” Cook said. “We had probably 24 Division I recruits in that camp and we decided to make some offers early, because that was still kind of the cool thing to do and there was talk about potentially delaying that.”
The camp lasted three days, and Gray called it “quite insane.” She said they treated the campers like royalty; they got a chance to tour campus, check out the trophy case and eat lunch at the top of Memorial Stadium. Oh, and then there was the volleyball.
“Oh my gosh, it was so cool,” Krause said. “I remember we were all pretty much the youngest girls there. There were some other girls that were also going to be freshmen, but I think he really put the focus on us as a group. So, it was very cool as a group to be able to play with other girls that were such high-level volleyball players at such a young age, and then also getting to play with the commits at the time like Nicklin (Hames) and Callie (Schwarzenbach) and Megan Miller, all of them. I got to play with them at camp, and they were all two, three years older than me.”
Cook offered the five freshmen-to-be during the camp, and doing so left a big impression.
“I was shocked, to say the least,” Gray sad. “He brought us into the locker room and he had all the national championship trophies laying out and just basically said we want you to come here and continue this legacy. Honestly, I was speechless; I didn’t know what to say to him. I remember coming out and my mom was watching the camp. The last day we always scrimmage, and she was watching, and I looked up to her and smiled so big, and she had no idea what was going on.”
In fact, Cook’s presentation made such an impression that Rodriguez pulled the trigger before she even left Lincoln.
The 5-foot-5 defensive specialist went on to play three varsity seasons at Sterling High, averaging 7.2 digs per set and amassing 120 service aces on her way to being named the top player at her position in the country. She set multiple school records and led the Golden Warriors to two state titles without even getting a chance to play her senior season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rodriguez wasn’t the only one who saw enough at that camp to make her decision. Krause followed suit a day later.
“It was really weird because I didn’t really think about it that much,” Krause said. “I didn’t really think if I would be able to get a scholarship from Nebraska. I guess in my head I thought if it happens that’s super cool, but I’m still going to consider other places. But it’s almost like, as soon as it happened, it just dawned on me, like, ‘Why on earth would I consider other places? This is exactly where you should be.’ It didn’t really take that much thinking afterwards.”
The nation’s top outside hitter went on to have a legendary career at Omaha Skutt, leading the SkyHawks to four state titles and an overall 118-16 record in her 134 career matches. Skutt lost to another Nebraska team just seven times in four years with Krause in the lineup. Standing at 6-foot-4, she racked up 1,449 kills on .411 hitting during her career, averaging a blistering 5.2 kills per set on .475 hitting as a senior.
Though it took some time for the other three to join Krause and Rodriguez in the class, that camp sparked a bond that grew into a tight friendship between the five of them over the next few years.
“It was really cool because we almost kind of clung to each other when we were really young, all at that camp,” Krause said. “After I saw that Lexi committed basically the same day before she even left to go home, and then I committed later, and then we really developed that friendship over time because we kept on going to camps and we kept seeing each other at these big tournaments.”
The next domino fell a couple of months later, and it was a big one. Orr announced her commitment on Sept. 27, 2017, giving the 2021 class its setter and the eventual top-ranked player in the country.
Krause was excited to learn who was going to be setting her the ball in Lincoln.
“I had been hearing about her since she was a 13-year-old, like she’s going to be the best setter in the country,” Krause said. “Then I got to play with her and just see how amazing she is. Any good hitter knows that you’re only as good as your setter is, so I think just to have Kennedi as my setter will be great.”
The 6-foot setter played six varsity seasons for Eagan High School, earning the starting spot by the end of her seventh-grade year. She helped lead the Wildcats to two state titles and three runner-up finishes during her career before suffering a torn ACL that cut her senior season short.
Within three months after the 2017 Dream Team Camp, Cook had received commitments from the top defensive specialist, outside hitter and setter in the country. He had to wait quite a while for the next decision, because Gray had some really good options from which to choose.
“I had obviously been talking to other schools, too, and my other main one was Stanford, just because I really liked (Coach Kevin) Hambly and the school in general,” Gray said. “My 15s year for club, we were in the championship game at nationals and I remember my coach talking to me and asking what my thoughts were on the whole recruiting process, because at that time it was basically just down to Stanford and Nebraska. He was like, ‘I’ve seen that family is really important to you and the people around you are really important to you.’ He wasn’t trying to sway my opinion or anything, he was just saying how he thinks it would be best for me to stay close to home.”
After Gray returned home, she spent some time thinking about her coach’s advice and talking with her family, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized he was right — staying close to home and being near her family was the most important thing.
She announced her commitment on July 7, 2018 — nearly one year after the Dream Team Camp. Cook had his middle blocker in the class.
Gray (6-foot-4) led Elkhorn South to four straight state tournaments culminating in the school’s first state title during her senior year. She recorded 1,383 kills and 476 blocks while hitting .423 for her career.
Four of those 2021 Dream Team Camp targets had made their decision, and all four picked Nebraska. Krause, who grew up playing volleyball and basketball against Gray, was happy to have another local girl in the class.
“It was weird because it felt like all the pieces were falling perfectly,” Krause said. “I remember Coach would pull all five of us together and be like, ‘If we can get all of you, we can do very big things.’ So just seeing everybody commit one by one — once she finally committed, it was like we were just adding to this group that’s already going to be amazing.”
Later that month, Krause, Orr, Gray and Batenhorst all got the call to compete with the USA Volleyball Girls’ Youth National Training Team in Colorado Springs, giving the three commits a chance to continue building their relationship while also working on completing the Dream team.
After the training camp in Colorado, Krause, Orr and Batenhorst all made the cut for the U18 team and traveled to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to compete in the 2018 NORCECA Continental Championship Aug. 27 through Sept. 1.
The Americans did not drop a single set in the event, sweeping five matches on their way to the
gold medal and a berth into the FIBA U18 World Championship the following year. Orr was named the best setter at the event, and the tournament provided Krause her first opportunity to play with her future setter in real competition.
“It’s super fun just because obviously being from all different parts of the country we don’t ever actually get the chance to play with each other that much besides camp,” Krause said. “So then getting to play with her for those two weeks at USA and then going on to Honduras to get to play with them, it’s fun to see a glimpse of what we’re going to get in college.”
Batenhorst still hadn’t made her decision, but Krause made sure to stay in her ear.
“I was very on her all the time, like, ‘What are you waiting for? What are you trying to do right now? We know you’re going to do it, so just do it already,’” Krause said.
A couple weeks after she returned from Honduras, Batenhorst did just that, announcing her commitment on Sept. 16, 2018. Though she lives in Texas, Batenhorst was born in Omaha and both of her parents — Kurt and Susan — are from Nebraska.
Batenhorst was a four-year varsity player and three- year captain at Seven Lakes High School. She led the Spartans to a runner-up finish at state as a freshman and a state title as a senior.
With that final commitment, Cook had gone five-for-five on his Dream Team targets, including the top three recruits in the country in Orr, Krause and Batenhorst.
“That’s crazy how all five of us ended up committing,” Gray said. “I remember the day that Ally committed I was freaking out. I called my parents right away and was like, ‘We got Ally!’ Because my dad and her dad are actually friends; they’ve known each other for a long time, and so we’d always be talking to Kurt and Ally about finishing the class. Lindsay, Kennedi, Ally and I were all at USA that summer because I think she committed right after USA, so we all kind of got to know each other better there, too. It was so fun, and it’s going to be so fun, too.”
With the Dream Team class complete, things were pretty quiet for Nebraska over the following year. Orr, Krause, Batenhorst and Rodriguez got the chance to reunite in Colorado Springs for the USA Volleyball Girls’ Youth National Training Team in July of 2019.
Orr, Krause and Rodriguez made the cut and traveled with the team to Ismailia, Egypt, to compete in the FIVB Girls U18 World Championship Sept. 5-14. The Americans dropped a match in pool play to Italy but avenged that loss in the championship to take home the country’s first-ever gold medal in an age-group World Championship. Orr once again took home best-setter honors.
The tournament also provided Krause her first chance to play with Rodriguez in competitive matches.
“She’s just so calm,” Krause said. “I feel like sometimes you can be playing with maybe back-row players or liberos and you need them to be loud and energetic and all this stuff, but Lexi is always so calm and she gets excited, but she never gets that worked up about things. She’s just always very consistent, and it’s good to have someone like that on your team that can just calm you down.”
Though Cook had completed the Dream Team class, he wasn’t done evaluating 2021 prospects.
Whitney Lauenstein’s recruitment took a completely different path than that of the other five. She wasn’t part of the special Dream Team camp group. At 6-foot-2, she played middle blocker as a high school freshman in Waverly, Nebraska, before her coach, Terri Neujahr, convinced her to switch to outside hitter. Lauenstein initially only received interest from lower-level schools, but as she continued to develop her recruitment took off.
Lauenstein started to hear from schools such as Illinois, and she took an official visit to Virginia. During that visit, Cook reached out to her and indicated he wanted to start developing a relationship.
On Sept. 23, the day before her birthday, she got a call from Cook that changed things dramatically.
“I just kind of told him I really was interested in Nebraska,” Lauenstein said. “What girl in Nebraska that plays volleyball isn’t interested? But I was just like, ‘I don’t want a walk-on spot. I got a lot of offers from really good schools that I’m really interested in and you’re really late in my recruitment. I was hoping to be committed around this time.’ Right when he told me, ‘Oh no, we’re not looking at you for a walk-on spot.’ Then I was like, ‘Holy cow. I actually have a chance to go to Nebraska and not have to pay.’ That’s crazy to think about because I thought my class was full.”
Lauenstein continued to think about her recruitment over the next two months, and then on Nov. 21, she pulled the trigger.
“I’ve lived in Nebraska my whole life,” Lauenstein said. “I loved going on different official visits and I loved being out of the state and stuff; that was really cool and really fun. But just being able to be right down the road from my hometown and I don’t have to leave anybody behind . . . Plus it was a Big Ten school and they’re really good.”
The other five girls in the class had been building their relationship over the course of two full years. Lauenstein wasn’t part of that; Krause said the first time she became aware of her future teammate was during her junior year when Lauenstein grew into a star for Waverly. Even so, once she committed she quickly become part of the team.
“They came with welcoming arms,” Lauenstein said. “They weren’t like stuck-up or anything; when I first met them, they were very sweet people . . . We have group chat and stuff and we always text in the group chat and I don’t feel left out at all. With social media, it’s so easy to have that quick access.”
Soon after Lauenstein committed, the rest of the class took an official visit to campus over the Thanksgiving break. Lauenstein decided to unofficially visit and save her official for her senior year (which she never got to take thanks to the pandemic). She didn’t get to take part in the entire visit, but she did meet her future teammates, most of them for the first time.
“I think it’s great to have so many girls from Nebraska playing at such a high level that we can all be on this college team that has a culture for winning,” Krause said. “I thought it was great to add another person to this class that was already stacked, and she can add to it just as much.”
Lauenstein credits her competitiveness and hard work for getting her to this point. Early on in her high school career she’d see how much the boys were lifting during workouts and wanted to match them. She’d go in early before school to squeeze in extra workouts and skill development sessions, and she’s proud of the path she took to becoming a Cornhusker.
“I do take pride in it because I worked so hard for that spot,” Lauenstein said. “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.”
More than four years of planning and work led to Nov. 11, 2020, when all six players signed their national letters of intent and made it official.
“It feels like it’s finally coming,” Krause said. “When I committed so long ago, it kind of felt like a drag, like it was never going to get here. I loved all my high school years but committing that young, it’s kind of like I already set up my future this far in advance and it just never feels like it’s going to get here. So then when I actually signed and I realized this is only six months away, it’s crazy.”
Gray said it felt like forever for her as well, but the feeling on signing day made it worth the wait. Lauenstein said it didn’t really feel any different after she put pen to paper, but she did think it was cool that she had a reason to wear her Nebraska gear all day and talk to the local news after the ceremony.
On that day, Nebraska signed the Nos. 1 (Orr), 2 (Krause), 3 (Batenhorst), 10 (Rodriguez), 16 (Lauenstein) and 70 (Gray) recruits in the country according to PrepVolleyball.com — the top-ranked class in the nation and arguably the best class in school history.
“We all obviously have the same goals in mind and same interests with volleyball and just committing to such a rich program,” Gray said. “I think we all have different personalities that we can all give to each other, and we all click so well. It’s easy to just talk about things, have fun, do things. It’s crazy how well we’ve meshed together.”
Krause believes the experiences they have shared over the course of the last four years will give them a head start once they all make their way to Lincoln to start their college careers.
“I think it’s just great how good we can be together because we already have this relationship with one another that I think sometimes teams take quite a while to build,” Krause said. “I think team chemistry is a really big part of any sports team. So, I think with all of us already being as close as we are and then being the high-level athletes, I think we’re going to be able to come in and do some good stuff.”
The likes of Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet and Nicklin Hames, who have led the Huskers to such great heights throughout their careers, will be moving on before too long, but the future is still bright in Lincoln. The members of the 2021 recruiting class have high expectations for themselves.
“The goal is obviously four national championships, but separately I think we’re all going to accomplish amazing things,” Gray said. “Definitely a couple All-Americans in this class, and we just want to leave our mark on Nebraska volleyball, especially for this state, too, with how popular volleyball is becoming and just showing girls, especially with Lindsay, Whitney and me, that Nebraska girls in smaller towns can do these things that girls in, like, Texas or California are doing, too.”
The three out-of-state recruits — Rodriguez, Orr and Batenhorst — are already on campus as early enrollees. They’ll participate in practice but won’t play during the 2020-21 season. The three Nebraskans are finishing out their high school careers and will enroll this summer.
“That group bonded, for whatever reason, and it just kind of lined up,” Cook said, reflecting on the class coming together. “Now three of them are here and the other three will be here this summer. Obviously, they’ve got a lot of hype, but they’re still freshmen and they’re still going to be freshmen and they still have to learn how to play at this level and in this conference. But they’ve had a lot of success up to this point, which is great because it’s hard to teach success if you haven’t had any.”
Pandemic allowing, the members of the 2021 recruiting class will get the opportunity to see each other a bit more over the next couple of months and continue growing that relationship.
Once June arrives, however, it will be time to work. This class has big goals and high expectations.
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.