By Lincoln Arneal
Meet Whitney Lauenstein, the Assassin.
It’s not the real Whitney, just her on-court alter ego. However, opposing defenses and hitters should beware of her new intention to kill every ball and smother every attack.
Nebraska’s sophomore opposite hitter developed the new identity this offseason to help put her in the needed mindset to become one of the Huskers’ most lethal attackers. So far, the results are impressive. In 2021, Lauenstein totaled just 62 kills in 67 sets. After three sweeps this season, she is halfway to that total and averaging 3.44 kills per set with a .353 hitting percentage. On defense, she has 13 blocks after recording 21 all of last season.
“I have to be really calm and quiet and just go up and kill it and block it,” the 6-foot-2 Lauenstein said of her on-court persona. “I embrace it. I like it. I think it gives me a role on the team. I think that really feels good, because last year, I didn’t know my role as much.”
The next challenge for Lauenstein and the Huskers (3-0) will come on Thursday night when NU hosts Loyola Marymount at 6 p.m. at the Devaney Center.
Lauenstein has always been blessed athletically. She came to NU after winning an all-class gold medal in the 300 hurdles as a senior at Waverly. Now, she’s grown more comfortable as a volleyball player.
NU coach John Cook said he’s noticed the leap from Lauenstein. He said the next step is for her to have the confidence to take over matches and make big swings in crucial moments.
“She’s very quick. She flies. She’s fast off the floor. She has a very fast arm. Those are a lot of things you can’t coach or develop,” Cook said. “She has those and we can refine them, but yeah, she’s got some talent there to work with.”
On top of her physical tools, Lauenstein has worked to develop her mental approach. She uses a meditation app to help her focus on breathing and remain calm in tense moments.
Also, she’s finally embraced her position as an opposite hitter. After playing middle blocker and outside hitter in high school, Lauenstein switched to the right side as a freshman, where she competed with Lindsay Krause.
“I was in denial for a long time,” she said. “I played outside my whole life. I didn’t want to switch it up in college. I feel like I finally peaked and didn’t want to switch up and then have to start all the way at the bottom again. This summer, I was like, ‘Okay, right side, let’s go.'”
Part of Lauenstein’s evolution is to not just rely on her power, which is usually quite effective. She’s mixed in hitting shots off blocks, tipping the ball and off-speed shots to keep the defense guessing. She said she’s learned to react to what is in front of her rather than just swinging away.
On Saturday, Pepperdine held set point in the opener following a hitting error by Lauenstein. However, setter Kennedi Orr went right back to Lauenstein, and she read the defense and hit a roll shot to the middle of the court that tied the set that the Huskers eventually won.
Orr said while Lauenstein plays with a lot of energy, it is contained and used positively.
“She has a lot of composure, and she doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her,” Orr said. “That’s so much growth for her and that’s such a special characteristic to have in a teammate.”
Cook said he thinks Lauenstein is on a mission this year. She’s put in the time to improve and was named the program’s co-lifter of the year on Friday.
When asked what her mission is, Lauenstein said she wants to be on the floor for the season’s final match and not have to watch another team celebrate.
“Last year, I just got to watch all my teammates and how we played in the national championship, and I just don’t really want that to happen again,” she said. “I want us to see happy faces after winning it and holding the trophy and like wearing the hats and the confetti falling on us.”
HUSKERS FALL ONE SPOT — Despite finishing the opening weekend with three sweeps, Nebraska fell to No. 2 in this week’s AVCA coaches poll. Texas won six of seven sets against No. 8 Ohio State to move up one spot.
The Huskers increased their point total by 14 to 1552, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the Longhorns. NU lost one first-place vote, while Texas collected the first-place votes from Wisconsin (12) and Louisville.
“Texas went and had two great wins at Ohio State. So they deserve it,” Cook said. “They proved it. We played some good teams, but Pepperdine was not ranked in the top 10 so I’m assuming that’s it. But hey, great, let them have it.”
The Badgers, which lost to Baylor in Fort Worth, fell to No. 6. Louisville, Minnesota and Georgia Tech rounded out the Top 5.
The biggest climbers were Baylor, which went from No. 16 to 9, and San Diego, which jumped 10 spots after defeating then-No. 6 Pitt. UCLA, which lost to Utah State, fell 11 spots to No. 23, while fellow Pac-12 member Washington split a series at Arkansas and dropped six spots to No. 14.
BACK TO WORK — Nebraska was back at work Monday gearing up for its second week. Cook said the team had plenty to work on and dubbed the day “Fix-It Day.”
“Footwork, positioning, where we start in our serve receive patterns, blocking technique. You want me to keep going?” Cook said before continuing. “Defensive positioning, being in the right spots, they got a big lecture about serving yesterday. That was a few of the things.”
Cook brought up serving as one area of focus this week. The Huskers are last in the Big Ten with just nine aces in nine sets, compared to 25 service errors, which was the fourth most of any team in the league.
“Serving is the one time it’s you and the ball,” he said. “You don’t need a setter or you don’t need anything else. It’s just you and the ball. So you have to have the mindset that you’re going back to create a point for your team.”
PASSING GRADE — After starting two matches this season, Orr said she would grade herself out at a B.
She said she was a little nervous in the first match against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but settled down and found a rhythm. Even though she played in two matches as a freshman, Orr considered last weekend her first true outing as a Husker.
Cook said he wants more even play from Orr as NU enters the second week of matches. While Orr averaged almost nine assists per set, NU’s offense struggled for stretches, especially against the Pepperdine block.
“(Consistency) would look like every set is the same. It’s consistent tempo and consistent location,” he said. “For a setter, she was a little inconsistent this past weekend.”