It’s time for Nebraska volleyball’s annual test of rookie nerves

The Red-White scrimmage is anything but a laid-back affair for newcomers.

By Lincoln Arneal

NU volleyball coach John Cook likes to tell the story of the most nervous three-time All-American Jordan Larson ever was before a match during her Nebraska career. It wasn’t the two national championship matches she appeared in, 17 top-five matchups or showdowns with Stanford, Texas or Penn State. 

No, the most nervous Larson was before a match happened before her first Red-White scrimmage. And that was in front of only 4,000 fans at the old NU Coliseum. Almost twice that many fill the Devaney Center now, which can cause a little bit of a shock for Husker newcomers. However, this year, Cook’s goal is to use the scrimmage as a teaching opportunity so the freshmen can be mentally prepared to play their best. 

“I’m going to approach it differently than we have in the past, where I’m always kidding them about how nervous they are. How the freshmen are gonna pee on the floor, and we have to have extra towels out,” Cook said. “Now it’s going to be we’re going to mentally prepare how to go through, perform and not worry about everything else going on.”

The Huskers will welcome the fall season Saturday at 6 p.m. with their annual scrimmage streamed on BTN+. 

For freshman middle blocker Maggie Mendelson, the 7,000-plus fans will be the largest crowd she will play in front of in her life. 

“It’s gonna be awesome,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that many people in the same room.”

Fellow freshman Bekka Allick had the advantage of playing in the spring match against Kansas in front of 6,117 fans in Grand Island. She said that she hears the words of senior Kenzie Knuckles, who told her that because there is so much noise, it is easy to forget about everything and focus on your breath, your voice and your teammates. 

Allick said before big matches some people freak out during the match, and it takes them a while to settle in, but her moments of nerves happen before she gets to the court. 

“I crash and burn like seconds before walking out onto the floor,” she said. “As soon as the first serve goes (up), my mind goes completely blank. Like I can’t think at all. All I think is responsive.”

The 6-foot-3 Waverly graduate is looking forward to the match though, as she’s equally anxious and excited. She said the goal is to treat it like a high-stakes match and not take any reps lightly. 

“We had our first scrimmage this last weekend, and I got a taste of what it’s like to play against each other,” she said. “We were so competitive … because we’ve established that trust amongst each other, we can turn it on and talk a little bit of smack.”

For sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez, she is excited to be back in front of fans. While she was at Nebraska as an early enrollee for the spring 2021 season, she couldn’t compete, so when the Deveney Center was filled up a year ago, she soaked it in after watching matches in front of small crowds. 

“I just remember that I was extremely nervous, and it was the first time we were back in front of everyone,” Rodriguez said about her first Red-White match in 2021. “I just remember it was so crazy. Everyone had so much fun, and it was really enjoyable for me.”

When he addressed the media on Monday, Cook didn’t know the game’s format or how he would divide the teams. He was also uncertain of the Huskers’ top six, saying his goal was to have everyone play and get an opportunity to prove themselves. 

One change to this year’s schedule is the introduction of fan day. Instead of having players sign autographs following the match, Nebraska will open Devaney from 10 a.m. to noon for fans. 

Cook said the idea to move to a fan day came from the marketing department to provide greater access to one of the most high-profile teams in the state. 

“A lot of people can’t get tickets so this is their one chance,” Cook said. “It’s a great way to share stuff with people that are buying tickets or people that can’t come to matches. We’re just trying to hit all of our fans.”

Cook: Middle blockers Allick, Mendelson don’t play like freshmen

Nebraska tops preseason poll for first since 2016.

By Lincoln Arneal

Maggie Mendelson and Bekka Allick have yet to play an official game for the Nebraska volleyball team. 

But in NU coach John Cook’s mind they aren’t first-year players. 

“Those guys get after it. They’re not freshmen,” Cook said on Monday after the first week of fall practices. “There’s not one day they’ve been here and I thought they were freshmen.”

The Huskers will need one of the two new middle blockers to step up and play a significant role as a starter. NU has just three middle blockers on its roster after five veterans either graduated, transferred or stepped away from the sport. Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord, a fifth-year senior, is expected to hold down the other middle blocker spot. 

Both of NU’s newbies have advantages working for them to get up to speed quickly. 

Allick enrolled early at Nebraska in January and went through a beach season in addition to spring practices. Mendelson, who moved up her high school graduation a year, hasn’t spent much time working out with the Huskers but was part of the United States U19 national team that won gold at the Pan Am games in July. 

Even though Mendelson is behind in time working in NU’s gym, Cook said the elite competition on the U19 team helped her quickly make up for lost time. 

“Maggie’s played more than anybody in the last (few months) indoor because of the USA deal,” he said. “She was gone for three weeks playing so she closed that gap (between her and Allick).”

Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said the middles showed strength and calm during their first week of practice. 

“Usually they can be a little frantic, but I think they’ve held their composure really well this past week,” Rodriguez said. 

While Mendelson is proving herself on the practice court, she also has to build relationships with her teammates. At Big Ten media days earlier this month, senior Madi Kubik said she was still getting to know the freshman and basic information about her. 

Kubik said she knows more about Allick and how she asserts herself during games. 

“She’s pretty quirky and fiery,” Kubik said. “It’s gonna be fun to see how her personality manifests on the court.”

Allick said they’ve been hit with a lot of new information during the first week of practice, but she’s trying to keep it simple and embrace the challenge of proving herself. She is thankful that she has an experienced teammate like Hord, who is a three-time All-American. 

“Fulfilling the middle role right now is a necessity, and I can feel that pressure as a freshman,” she said. “I really want to prove myself here as a Nebraska Husker volleyball player alone, and now that’s on top of it. I definitely have a challenge in front of me and I’m excited.”

HUSKERS FIRST — The preseason AVCA poll was released Monday afternoon and the Huskers will begin with a target on their back claiming the top spot. 

This is the first time NU has started a preseason poll No. 1 since 2016. All-time, the Huskers have appeared atop the AVCA poll for 101 weeks, which is the most of any program. 

Nebraska received 24 first-place votes, three fewer than second-rated Texas, but the Huskers earned 10 more overall points. Wisconsin came in third with 12 first-place votes. Louisville, led by former Husker Dani Busboom Kelly, received the final first-place vote and was fourth. Minnesota rounded out the top five in the first poll.

The Badgers defeated Nebraska in the national title game, while UT lost to the Huskers in the regional final in Austin. However, both teams look quite different from a year ago. The Longhorns remade last year’s roster adding six transfers and five freshmen while losing five transfers and one player to graduation and also retirement. Wisconsin lost multiple All-Americans, but received two big transfers in outside hitter Sarah Franklin (Michigan State) and Caroline Crawford (Kansas). 

The Huskers are slated to play eight ranked teams. Besides the Badgers and Gophers, NU will face No. 7 Ohio State, No. 11 Kentucky, No. 13 Purdue, No. 14 Stanford, No. 17 Illinois, No. 18 Creighton and No. 20 Penn State. 

NO TOP UNIT — After the first week of practices, Cook said he doesn’t know who will be in the starting lineup until NU’s first match. In addition to middle blocker, the Huskers have question marks at setter and outside hitter to settle. 

Sophomore Kennedi Orr will get the first crack at setting, but All-American Nicklin Hames is still available. In addition, the Huskers are still trying to figure out the right combination at outside hitter behind Kubik. Sophomores Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause split time there this spring, while Krause also played the right side last year with Whitney Lauenstein. 

Cook said he focuses more on attitude and ability to compete and improve each day rather than the top line at each position. 

“I wish we had a starting lineup right now, but I couldn’t tell you who it is because one day, I think we know it and the next day it changes. So we kind of let them compete right now.”

View images from the 2022 National Championship vs Wisconsin

Kayla Caffey headed to Texas

Former Husker volleyball player Kayla Caffey has found a new home

By Lincoln Arneal

The All-American middle blocker announced on social media she would be joining the University of Texas volleyball team Friday.  Caffey will join former Husker defensive specialist Keonilei Akana. Nebraska legend Jordan Larson is also a volunteer assistant for the Longhorns. 

Caffey’s announcement ended a long week of confusion that kicked off with news that she entered the transfer portal and peaked Monday in Chicago at the Big Ten volleyball media days.  

For most of the year, Kayla Caffey was set to play for the Nebraska volleyball team during the fall 2022 season. 

Yet, despite the intentions of both sides for a reunion, the All-American middle blocker will not be suiting up for the Huskers this fall. 

The reason for the split is a disagreement – which is still a bit muddled – over a scholarship. At Big Ten media days on Monday, NU volleyball coach John Cook gave his most detailed explanation of the situation, but even that didn’t clear the air as he issued a correction via new release several hours after his final interview. 

During his interviews with the media, Cook said NU was fully committed to Caffey and having her on scholarship during the season. However, that contradicted what Caffey wrote in an Instagram post on Friday. She said the Nebraska coaches informed her that they could not offer her a scholarship in early July. 

In his amended statement issued Monday evening, Cook said Caffey was working on several name-image-likeness deals to cover her expenses for the fall semester, but changed course and notified the NU coaches last week that she would not be returning.  

“While we anticipated having her be a part of this year’s team, I respect that this is a personal decision for her,” Cook said. “We wish her the best going forward.”

During their initial meeting last December, Cook said Caffey was all about coming back. She wanted to help Nebraska win a national title after it fell one match short last season and also earn a second master’s degree.

The scholarship crunch started in the spring as Nebraska needed to make room on its scholarship allotment for the two incoming freshmen – Bekka Allick and Hayden Kubik. However, Nebraska only had one open scholarship after freshman middle blocker Rylee Gray medically retired. Of its seniors from last season, Nicklin Hames and Callie Scharzenbach needed to remain on scholarship because they planned to continue their careers and Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins didn’t count toward the limit because of the one-time COVID exemption. 

Under NCAA Bylaw 15.5.2.4, teams can replace scholarship student athletes if they graduate at semester with an incoming student not counting toward the limit of 12. The stipulation is that if a player is replaced via this rule it is expected their career is over.

Cook hinted at this issue during media days, saying they should have extended Caffey’s academic career instead of finishing her master’s degree in December. 

Caffey’s intention to return kicked off work by the Nebraska compliance office to get her cleared by the NCAA for a seventh year. She previously redshirted at Missouri in 2016 and then missed the 2018 season with injuries. Because the 2020-21 COVID season didn’t count for eligibility, she was in position for another season.

Because they had also used the midyear replacement exception, Nebraska also needed a waiver to continue her eligibility and not have Nebraska be penalized for being over the scholarship limit. 

The situation dragged out and impacted the Huskers’ spring match, which caused Caffey to watch the match in street clothes. Had she played, she would have been converted into a scholarship counter and put NU over the limit. (Caffey could play beach volleyball because she still had eligibility left in that sport.)

Nebraska received approval for both waivers from the NCAA in May. But according to Cook, it came with a heavy penalty for the Huskers. If Caffey returned, NU would be docked one scholarship because they had exceeded the limit, which Cook said they would have taken next season.

Prior to the breakup last week, Cook said NU was fully committed to bringing Caffey back for a final go-around. After Nebraska received the OK from the NCAA, Cook said he waited for an announcement from Caffey, but nothing came.

“The ball was in her court. As far as I knew she was coming back,” Cook said. “I was waiting for her to do her announcement, which all these transfers do because it’s like going through recruiting again. We were waiting for that. It never happened.”

Sometime during the next two months, the situation changed – how and why isn’t totally clear – and Caffey’s scholarship was taken off the table. A Nebraska spokesperson told the Omaha World-Herald that Caffey was notified in writing on June 30 that she would not receive an athletic scholarship for the 2022 season. 

Yet, it appeared that everything was still pointing to one more season as Caffey was around the team for most of the summer. She helped out with Nebraska’s team camps and participated in open gyms. While student-athletes can use NIL deals to cover their school expenses, schools cannot help arrange for the deals. The student-athlete must work to arrange for these deals, akin to any employment opportunities. 

In late July, Caffey told the coaches she was finished. Cook said he worked with her to get contacts for a possible professional career and connect her with several agents. Then a few days later, Cook received a letter from the NU compliance office informing him that Caffey had entered the transfer portal. 

Senior Madi Kubik said she wasn’t too surprised by Caffey’s departure because she knew it was one of three possible outcomes: her return, going pro or transferring. 

“I just hope that she’s successful and happy,” Kubik said. “We love her and we’ll miss her and she’s a great teammate. She was my locker buddy.”

While talking about Caffey’s situation on Monday but not mentioning her specifically, Cook twice brought up several negative impacts of NIL arrangements and how they can poison some players’ minds and alter their motivations. 

“All I know is at Nebraska volleyball, we’re going to recruit kids that want to play for Nebraska and that’s what they’re here for and that’s what they want,” Cook said. “If there’s things that come along with that, with NIL and other opportunities, great.”

With Caffey moving on, all five middle blockers from last year’s national runner-up team are gone. Lauren Stivrins exhausted her eligibility after a super senior year. Callie Schwarzenbach will play her final season at Long Beach State. Kalynn Meyer switched her main sport to track and field and Rylee Gray medically retired from the sport. 

As of now, the Huskers have 11 players on scholarship, which is one less than the NCAA limit. Cook said they haven’t decided what they are going to do with the open scholarship for the fall season. 

Those on scholarship include: 

Seniors (four): setter/defensive specialist Nicklin Hames, outside hitter Madi Kubik, defensive specialist/libero Kenzie Knuckles, middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord.

Juniors: none.

Sophomores (five): outside hitter Lindsay Krause, outside hitter Ally Batenhorst, outside hitter Whitney Lauenstein, setter Kennedi Orr, libero Lexi Rodriguez. 

Freshmen (two): middle blocker Bekka Allick, outside hitter Hayden Kubik.

The scholarship of freshman middle blocker Maggie Mendelson counts for women’s basketball. Junior setter Anni Evans and freshman defensive specialist Maisie Boesiger are not on scholarship, but Evans was awarded the remainder of Meyer’s scholarship during the spring semester. 

This story was updated Aug. 5.

View images from the 2022 National Championship vs Wisconsin

Husker volleyball Rises To The Occasion At Big Ten Media Days

By LINCOLN ARNEAL

CHICAGO — Madi Kubik called it sick. Kenzie Knuckles said it was an eye-opening experience. 

John Cook said the day was an incredible experience for the student-athletes and a great statement for the sport.

Kubik, Knuckles and Cook represented Nebraska at the first-ever volleyball-specific media days on Monday at the Big Ten Network offices. All the participants in the event said they were glad to be part of the historic event and hoped more leagues would follow and continue to grow the sport. 

“One of my hopes and wishes from all this is that this is now going to spread to other conferences and continue to validate the growth of volleyball in this country and how big it is, and the Big Ten is certainly leading the way in setting the example,” Cook said. 

In addition to talking with the media, the players and coaches went through several content-generation stations for the Big Ten Network, including filming interviews for television shows, creating digital content and making TikTok videos.

The three Huskers also conducted a second interview session with the Nebraska media contingent, which was well represented as it comprised almost half of those in attendance during the first day, which featured seven teams. 

“I think it’s making a major statement about the importance of volleyball in the state of Nebraska and what this means to everybody who follows us,” Cook said. 

Because the Big Ten does not have a league tournament, this was a rare chance for all the players and coaches to be in the same place simultaneously. The conference also treated the players and coaches to meals and social time in Chicago.

The news was coming fast and furious on Monday as three Huskers were named to the Big Ten’s preseason team. Senior outside hitter Madi Kubik was the only unanimous selection among the 15 players honored, while senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord and sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez were also recognized. Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin led the way with three players apiece on the preseason team. 

In addition, the coaches picked Nebraska to finish second in the league behind three-time defending champion Wisconsin, which won the national title last season. NU finished 1.5 games behind the Badgers and lost to their league rival in the championship match. 

“It was really tough for us to lose the national championship,” Knuckles said. “I think that we bounce back pretty well. We have a group of girls that work really hard and are really dedicated to the season and what we want to achieve. We put in the work this summer and we’re really excited for the season to start.”

The league unveiled its television coverage for the year. The Huskers will be featured on television 18 times, which includes 12 games on BTN, four games on Nebraska Public Media and a game on ESPN and FS1. The other 11 matches will all be streamed on BTN+. 

The Huskers will start preseason practice next week on Aug. 9 and are looking forward to getting back to work and improving upon last year’s national runner-up finish. 

While they cannot work with coaches during the summer, the players have gone through strength and conditioning workouts and played together during open gyms. 

One of the day’s themes was coaches and players campaigning for contact between the two groups during the summer, even in a limited capacity to help with the quick transition from the start of practices to the first match. 

However, Kubik said she liked the opportunity presented by the current setup, which allows the players to take control of the team culture and develop leadership. 

“I think what was so strong on our team last year was having (team-led culture) and instilling the things that are so important to us being Nebraska volleyball players and kind of down through our younger players with that being led by us,” she said. “If we don’t care about what we’re doing and with each other, then — if the coaches care really deeply, that’s great and we want that. But if we don’t care about it within each other, we’re going to have a problem there.”

The Huskers will have plenty to sort out in the three weeks of practice before they play Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Aug. 26. 

With last week’s news that Kayla Caffey is transferring from Nebraska, the Huskers won’t have any of the five middle blockers back from last year’s roster. Instead, the two starters will come from Hord, a transfer from Penn State, and freshmen Bekka Allick and Maggie Mendelson. 

In addition, the Huskers will break in a new setter as four-year starter Nicklin Hames is transitioning to a new role during her super senior campaign. Cook said the best-case scenario would be for sophomore Kennedi Orr to take over the offense. 

“Kennedi is going to get her shot,” Cook said. “She made it through all her workouts and working camps and everything. She’s worked hard, and we’ve got to keep our fingers crossed.”

Those questions can remain for next week. The Huskers had more pressing issues to attend to Monday night. 

As she wrapped up her final interview with her high heels off her feet, Kubik said she was looking forward to dinner that night at a steakhouse. She said she appreciated seeing the Big Ten Network’s offices and forgot that she was in Chicago for a while. However, she said the whole experience was really enjoyable.

“It’s a huge step for women’s sports and for the sport of volleyball,” Kubik said. “It’s really cool to be a part of this unprecedented event in history.”