By Lincoln Arneal
Last Tuesday, the Nebraska volleyball team boarded its flight from Rio de Janeiro to wrap up its 17-day trip to Brazil. It was a whirlwind of volleyball, tourist outings, plus lots of Brazilian food, culture and beaches.
The trip was a success on the court as the Huskers went 5-0 against various club junior teams and several iterations of the Brazilian national team.
The first three matches in Belo Horizonte provided little challenge for NU as it swept Minas Tênis Clube 25-8, 25-12, 25-13; Mackenzie U19 25-15, 25-14, 25-17; and Dentil Praia Clube U19 25-9, 25-7, 25-7. The Huskers used several different lineups and everyone got on the court.
When the action shifted to Rio, the competition took a step up. The Huskers won the first four sets against the U21 Brazil National team (25-21, 25-18, 25-20, 27-25) before dropping the fifth, 16-14. NU wrapped up the competition with a 3-2 win (25-23, 25-27, 16-25, 25-19, 15-10) over the Brazil Military Selection Team, which featured some Brazilian National Team players.
NU coach John Cook said the timing of the international trip was impeccable as the Huskers could take their entire squad and had enough players to allow everyone.
“The great thing was we can play two teams because we took 14 players – sometimes you don’t get to take everybody,” he said. “We had one team one night, then we switched setters and another team played. We mixed them up and so it was very productive.”
NU also made strides off the court as they spent a lot of time together developing bonds and participating in several community events providing young Brazilians with free Adidas gear and volleyball lessons.
Here are five takeaways from the trip based on conversations with Cook and the captains – Lexi Rodriguez and Merritt Beason – the YouTube streams from the matches and social media posts.
- The outside hitter race is wide open – The Huskers utilized all four outside hitters while on the trip. Three leaders emerged as freshman Harper Murray and juniors Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst earned most of the playing time in the final two matches. Batenhorst came on for Krause against the U21 team and played well. She connected with her setters and appeared to change her arm swing, making contact with the ball at a higher point. She finished with eight kills and a pair of aces and earned the start for the next match. While Batnehorst played the first two sets, Krause replaced her for the final three sets and played well, delivering several big kills and an ace. Harper Murray flashed the most potential out of the group, unleashing an array of powerful swings. She’s a lethal attacker from the back row and can jump out of the gym. NU coach John Cook trusted all three to play all six rotations. This battle might not be decided until the first match, and Cook could still rotate them depending on who has the hot hand.
- Team chemistry is strong – Even though almost half the team is new, the Huskers have developed strong bonds after more than two weeks together in Brazil. They’ve also had a week traveling together to Hawaii during the beach season. Yes, all teams spend a lot of time together, but doing so while traveling adds another level of camaraderie, especially in a country where you don’t speak the native language. The team did the usual tourist activities and went to meals in small groups with the coaches and staff. They’ve had a lot of opportunities to get out of their comfort zone with each other and make connections. With the entire team present for the start of the spring semester, this group will have spent more than seven full months together by the time fall camp begins. With no seniors (or fifth-year players), Nebraska must rely on chemistry to help it overcome more experienced opponents.
“Being together for that long in a different country where things aren’t what we’re used to, it’s bound to bring us closer together on and off the court,” Rodriguez said. “Off the court, we all got a lot closer. We were sleeping together, eating three meals a day together, traveling together… I think just that we all figured out that no matter who’s on the court, we have a very high-level volleyball team and that no matter what six get chosen to play, it’s going to be a really good season.
- Bekka Allick is poised for a big year – The sophomore middle blocker shows no signs of slowing down after a solid debut campaign. Her volleyball IQ has improved as she shows better anticipation at the net and smothers attacks. She’s more aggressive and can be a more consistent threat on offense. Allick has a big personality, has no shyness in expressing herself, and looks to emerge as a team leader, even if she isn’t an official captain. Beason said one of the most memorable parts of the trip was when Allick tried some cow tongue at a meal.
“I wimped out. I couldn’t try it,” she said. “We didn’t tell her what it was after she ate it.”
- The freshmen will play a significant role this season – We’ve covered Murray, who looks like a special player, but she won’t be the only member of the 2023 recruiting class – the top-rated class by PrepVolleyball.com – to factor into the success of the Huskers. While they showed out well during the beach season and in the spring match, Rodriguez said the trip helped them take another step.
“I think giving them kind of a little jumpstart to what this season is going to be like,” she said. “It was very important just for them to shake out some nerves and get used to playing at this high level.”
Andi Jackson has displayed impressive athleticism and has quickly mastered the slide attack. She will challenge for playing time with sophomore Maggie Mendelson, but keeping Jackson’s potential off the court will be hard. Laney Choboy would start at libero on almost every team that doesn’t have Rodriguez. She’s a sparkplug in the back row, bringing confidence beyond her years with her natural floor instincts. Caroline Jurevicius might have the most challenging path to playing time behind Beason, but she’s no slouch, as she has power at the right pin and is a strong competitor. As for the last member of the class …
- Bergen Reilly might have an inside track at setter – This is another position battle that won’t be settled for a long time, at least not publicly. In the post-trip press conference, Cook said that Reilly and junior Kennedi Orr graded out “dead even,” and he has not decided who the starter will be. The duo rotated the first three matches in Brazil, but Reilly got the nod to start against the two toughest opponents to close the trip. While these are just exhibitions and all lineup choices should be viewed as a chance to mix and match players, Reilly showed more effectiveness and potential running the offense. Orr was also solid in her turn at setter, and she has shown progress from some of the inconsistencies that plagued her at times last season. No matter who starts at setter, the NU offense should be in a better place than a year ago. The one sure thing is the Huskers will be running a 5-1 system.
“They practice together all the time. They’re always in meetings together,” Rodriguez said. “(Orr has) done a great job of just welcoming Bergen, and it’s really good to see that no matter if she’s the one playing or not, she’s always going to be the loudest cheer and the one who’s encouraging everyone.”
With the spring and summer competitions finished, Nebraska quickly changed its focus to the future, as the recruiting contact period for 2025 prospects opened on June 15 and summer camps start in early July. For the current Huskers, open gyms will happen, with the players taking control of the workouts. (Mendelson will get some basketball workouts in as well.)
Rodriguez said she would definitely take a trip back to Brazil. She said she was impressed by the joy of sports they have they are how they play from sunrise to sunset. Beason said they used their time together even when they weren’t playing.
“We didn’t necessarily have volleyball those last couple of days, so we were able to relax, grow as a team, just have a lot of those conversations,” she said. “It was two weeks on the road, so we’re definitely a little bit tired, but we lifted this morning so we’re ready to go.”
The next time we will hear from the players will be Aug. 1-2 in Chicago, where they will be part of the second annual Big Ten Media Days.
Cook, who wore a Brazillian volleyball jersey to a press conference last week, said it was a great trip because they got an extra month of training, they know their captains now and took a step forward on the court.
“I just think our level of confidence is higher because we played more,” he said. “This is a very young group. So just having that game experience will (help.) We’ve gone on a couple of international trips, and we won national championships after those trips, so these trips are definitely worth it.”