The march toward the Final Four in Omaha begins on Wednesday for the Huskers as they hold their first team meeting of 2020.
John Cook brings back his entire starting lineup from 2019’s 28-5 team, but the Huskers bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight. With his new staff intact — Kelly Hunter stepping up as an interim assistant alongside Jaylen Reyes until Tyler Hildebrand arrives in August — the Huskers are preparing to dream big once again.
“We’ve got to find a way to take this team to another level — mentally, physically, technically,” Cook said. “We’re going to have some changes on our roster. So the journey starts. We’re now less than 365 days away from the Final Four in Omaha. This will be the fourth time we’ve gone through this, hosting a Final Four. We know what’s out there and that’s our goal. It’s our goal whether we want it to be our goal or not. We’re hosting it in-state so it’s a big party in Omaha and we want to make sure we’re there.”
All six starters plus the libero are set to return, but Nebraska’s bench will look quite a bit different next season thanks to the roster changes Cook mentioned.
First, a couple days after the end of Nebraska’s season, Capri Davis announced that she was transferring to Texas. Nebraska was without Davis for most of the season, first because of injury and then because she took a medical leave of absence from the team. Ultimately, she decided to return to her home state of Texas to continue her college career.
Then on Friday, opposite hitter Anezka Szabo announced that she was transferring to Kansas after three years at Nebraska. On Monday, Nebraska also announced that sophomore Chen Abramovich, a defensive specialist who missed the season after suffering an injury in the preseason, had entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. The 5-foot-6 native of Kfar Saba, Israel, appeared in one match in two years at Nebraska.
On Tuesday, the biggest news dropped as a spokesman for the program confirmed to Hail Varsity that defensive specialist Megan Miller had also entered the transfer portal. As a sophomore, Miller played in all 33 matches and 119 sets. She averaged 2.07 digs per set and was one of the team’s best servers, recording 24 aces to 24 errors.
As a freshman, Miller played in 29 matches and 96 sets, averaging 2.01 digs with 20 aces and 30 errors. She battled for the libero job heading into the 2019 season but freshman Kenzie Knuckles won the job.
The departures give Nebraska a few scholarships to use, and Cook said he’ll look at every avenue to add talent to the roster.
“We’re always looking,” Cook said. “We’re looking at transfers and we’ll see what happens. There are still some 2020 kids out there that we’re looking at, so recruiting never stops, especially now, this day and age with the portal. It’s insane how fast kids are moving. I can’t even keep up with it. There are kids that come on the portal and the next day they’re committed somewhere. It’s a whole ‘nother recruiting season. So now we’ve got the young kids come to camp, then you’ve got them as juniors and now you’ve got the transfer portal, so there’s really three parts of recruiting.”
Cook said he’s going to be looking for the best players that fit at Nebraska regardless of position. He’s looking for players “with something they can do exceptionally.”
That being said, the attrition does leave Nebraska light at certain positions. Szabo saw the court mostly as a blocker in Nebraska’s double-substitution, but she was also the only other lefty on the team and Jazz Sweet’s back-up at opposite hitter. Cook said he has options to fill that void.
“We have Abby [Johnson], a walk-on, who we’re going to train on the right side,” Cook said. “Riley Zuhn’s a potential right side — she can also play left, she can also play middle, but we’re going to keep her on the outside now. That’s the good thing about players who can move around. And then we’ll see what’s out there transfer-wise.”
With Johnson, Zuhn, Sweet, Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik, the Huskers have five outside hitters. Miller’s departure leaves Nebraska with Knuckles, senior-to-be Hayley Densberger and Emma Gabel at defensive specialist. Gabel, a walk-on out of Lincoln Pius X, missed the whole 2019 season while recovering from a torn ACL she suffered last spring. The Huskers have plenty of depth at middle blocker (Lauren Stivrins, Callie Schwarzenbach, Kalynn Meyer, Fallon Stutheit) and setter (Nicklin Hames, Nicole Drewnick and Annika Evans).
The recruiting efforts start now. With Kayla Banwarth’s departure, Jaylen Reyes has taken over as recruiting coordinator.
“We’ve already moved the board into his office and he’s got the energy to do it,” Cook said. “He’s really, really excited. I think this is great for Jaylen for his development to take over recruiting because that’s a huge part of it.”
Cook and Reyes will get some help from Kelly Hunter, who has been elevated to a full-time assistant role on an interim basis until Hildebrand finishes up his USA beach volleyball duties. Hunter will hit the road to recruit along with Reyes and Cook this spring.
In the mean time, offseason workouts for the players already on campus begin on Thursday as the beach season is just five weeks away.
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.