By Lincoln Arneal
Nebraska entered the final week of the 2022 regular season with a chance to earn a share of the Big Ten championship.
The Huskers trailed Wisconsin by one game, with a showdown with the Badgers after Thanksgiving. NU needed to win if it hoped to keep its title dreams alive.
However, they received bad news earlier that week when senior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles suffered a knee injury during practice. The loss forced the Huskers to reconfigure their back-row defense and try to play without their co-captain.
NU lost to the Badgers in four sets and then suffered a sweep against Minnesota to wrap up the regular season. Defense was the key to NU’s success, and without its leader, it couldn’t respond in such a short window. Last year, NU led the NCAA with an opponent’s hitting percentage of .128, nine points better than the next-best team, Delaware State.
The loss of Knuckles, who NU coach John Cook called the best center-back player in the country, illustrates the importance of back-row-only players for Nebraska as they’ve built their identity on strong defensive play and making opponents work for each point.
The Huskers will have to replace Knuckles as she wrapped up her career and moved on. However, the Huskers are better positioned to build another stingy back-row lineup with more time and a full roster.
In our final position preview, we examine the libero, defensive and serving specialists for the Huskers. Even though they can be part-time players, they have a full-size impact on NU’s success.
Who is back: Lexi Rodriguez, 5-foot-5, junior; Maisie Boesiger, 5-6, sophomore.
Who is gone: Kenzie Knuckles, 5-9, graduated.
Who is new: Laney Choboy, 5-3, freshman, No. 8 overall prospect according to PrepVolleyball.com.
Rodriguez is the headliner of this group and will don the libero jersey for the third season. She is one of the best liberos in the country and one of the best overall defensive players. Her ability to change the game and pass on a point makes her the centerpiece of NU’s defense.
She’s piled up plenty of accolades in her first two years in the program – a pair of All-American awards, national freshman of the year and Big Ten defensive player of the year. She’s also developed into a calm, confident leader on the court. She was elected as a captain last season and returns to that role with more understanding of what it takes to make an impact on her teammates.
Rodriguez, Nebraska’s lone representative on the preseason All-Big Ten team, averaged 4.26 digs per set. She was fourth in the league, but often teams tried to take her out of the game by hitting away from her. She will again anchor NU’s defense and provide a steady influence.
Maisie Boesiger is another solid defensive player, but her impact is more prominent from the service line. The Norris graduate came in to serve for NU’s middle blocker, most of the time Bekka Allick. She has a wicked jump float that can be difficult to handle. There should be more opportunities to serve this year, as the Huskers will have more substitutions available after switching to a 5-1 offense.
Laney Choboy was a late addition to the Huskers, switching her commitment a week before signing day after Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon announced he was stepping down. She was the best libero in her recruiting class and could have had the opportunity to start at many schools in the country.
She’ll likely be the top defensive specialist, playing the back row for one of NU’s outside hitters. Choboy has excellent instincts and covers the floor well. She will be another solid addition to the back row and have the opportunity to learn from Rodriguez to develop into the next outstanding Husker libero.