With Freshmen On Board, NU Dives Into Beach Season

By Lincoln Arneal

The Husker volleyball team has undergone a mini roster makeover in the 50 days since it was last in action. 

Gone are seniors Madi Kubik, Kenzie Knuckles, Kaitlyn Hord and Nicklin Hames since the indoor season ended Dec. 8 in the NCAA regional semifinals. Plus, junior Whitney Lauenstein stepped away from the sport. 

In their place are five incoming freshmen ranked as PrepVolleyball.com’s top-ranked recruiting class and Florida transfer Merritt Beason. 

After more than a month away from campus, the returning Huskers were back in Lincoln last week and began beach practices on Monday. They will have a sprint to get ready for the beach season, which kicks off in less than four weeks on Feb. 24 against Wayne State. 

NU coach John Cook said he’s impressed by the newcomers. The freshmen have arrived in shape coming off their fall seasons and all participated in the Under Armour All-America Game at the end of December. Beason is in her element in the sand having played beach volleyball for three years in high school in Gardendale, Alabama. 

“The five freshmen are way ahead of where we thought they would be,” Cook said. “They’re just good volleyball players. They came in in shape. I can tell you this – they’re way ahead of where our junior class was as freshmen; of course, they were coming off COVID stuff. We were pretty impressed with the first week.”

The one notable omission from the beach roster is Kennedi Orr. Cook said the junior setter will not participate in beach volleyball, instead focusing on indoor season training. 

Orr suffered a minor knee injury midway through the beach season last year on the same knee in which she tore her ACL in September 2020 as a high school senior. 

“We’re just going to keep her out of it. We don’t want to risk it,” Cook said. “She wants to (play), but we’re just doing it as a precaution.”

Orr will also try out for the USA Select Team in May, which includes training sessions and possibly an overseas trip for a tournament. 

FOREIGN TRIP UPCOMING – The Nebraska staff is busy planning its quadrennial foreign trip this summer. This will be the Huskers’ sixth foreign trip. The previous five have been to China or Japan.

While they haven’t finalized any details, they are doing more research into taking a trip to Brazil. Cook said they would likely decide on their destination in the next week or so. 

“We’re still going back and forth, but we’re a little farther along in Brazil right now,” Cook said. “With China, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ there. They really want us because they haven’t had anybody, but Brazil right now is a little farther ahead in that progress.”

SPRING MATCH ROADSHOW – Nebraska is also working to finalize details for its spring match. Cook said he has a location and opponent in mind. However, Nebraska is still finalizing contracts and figuring out ticket information. The site should be announced in February.

Fitting The Pieces: A Quick Look at NU’s Volleyball Roster

By Lincoln Arneal

The solution in Nebraska’s offseason scholarship shuffle revealed itself on Tuesday when junior opposite Whitney Lauenstein announced that she was leaving the Huskers to focus on herself and her family. 

Now the Huskers will have to replace their top two attackers with Lauenstein stepping away and Madi Kubik graduating. Help is on the way as all five 2023 signees will be on campus next week as NU begins offseason workouts that will soon give way to beach volleyball practices. With an eye to the fall, here are the implications of Lauenstein’s departure and how the new pieces fit together for the Huskers. 

OPPOSITES ATTRACT: Even though Lauenstein started almost every match at the left pin, the Huskers already have a ready replacement in Merritt Beason, who announced her transfer from Florida in December.

Beason actually posted a better-attacking stat line than Lauenstein last year. She averaged 3.35 kills per set on a .261 hitting percentage with 38 aces. Lauenstein put up 2.78 kills at a .238 clip with 28 aces as a sophomore. The Waverly graduate was a better blocker averaging more than a block per set. 

Beason should get the first crack at the starting position. She already has a rapport with several Huskers as she played with middle blocker Bekka Allick and libero Lexi Rodrigeuz on the junior national team. Incoming freshman Caroline Jurevicius should provide depth as she adjusts to the college game.

KRAUSE COULD FLIP: Last year, Lindsay Krause played both at the left and right pins with high effectiveness. She has more experience on the left side and looks more comfortable. With Beason’s experience, she could finally settle in on the left pin along with fellow junior Ally Batenhorst. Those two finished third and fourth for the Huskers in kills last season, both averaging more than two per set. Krause flourished late in the season with 62 kills and a .351 hitting percentage. 

This is dependent on Nebraska reverting back to a one-setter offense. If junior Kennedi Orr or freshman Bergen Reilly can grab control of the system and perform at a high level, NU can revert back to the offense preferred by NU coach John Cook. The Huskers have enough attackers to run a 6-2, but Cook might want the consistency of playing just one setter.

Batenhorst and Krause should start the spring as the top outside hitters, but don’t count out sophomore Hayden Kubik and freshman Harper Murray. Kubik really only got extensive playing time against Creighton and held her own, while Murray enters the program with a boatload of prep awards and talent. 

With Rodriguez and the top libero prospect Laney Choboy, the Huskers have a bit of flexibility with their back-row defense. If Beason continues to play all six rotations, NU only needs one of its two outside hitters to play all the way around. Batenhorst stepped in late after Kenzie Knuckles was injured, but Krause has shown the ability to pass as well. It might lessen the load as they become NU’s featured attackers. 

SCHOLARSHIPS STILL FULL: Entering the off-season, Nebraska was at the limit of 12 scholarships. When Beason committed out of the portal, it signaled that some sort of roster movement was likely. 

The Huskers now have five scholarship juniors: Krause, Batenhorst, Rodriguez, Beason and Orr. Allick and Kubik are the two sophomores on scholarship as Maggie Mendelson counts toward women’s basketball and Maisie Boesiger is a walk-on. The final five are freshmen: Murray, Choboy, Jurevicius, Reilly and middle blocker Andi Jackson. 

Nebraska will have more scholarship numbers to crunch next year as it has no seniors on the roster. Still, three verbal commitments for the Class of 2024 – outside hitter Skylar Pierce, middle blocker Ayden Ames and libero/defensive specialist Olivia Mauch – mean more player movement is probable. The one caveat is sometimes NU only awards two-year scholarships to defensive specialists, so that could create an open scholarship or two. But, that’s an issue for next offseason.

Lauenstein no longer part of Husker Volleyball Team; Will Focus On Self, Family

By Lincoln Arneal

Whitney Lauenstein announced Tuesday evening that she is stepping away from the Nebraska volleyball team. 

The junior opposite hitter announced on her Instagram that she took time between semesters to figure out her future with the sport. 

“I have decided to step away from the volleyball team to focus on myself and be with my family and continue to heal due to the passing of my dad,” Lauenstein wrote. “I will miss playing at the (Bob Devaney Center) with my teammates. It will be something I will remember forever, but I think it’s important to put yourself first before you commit to something big!” 

NU coach John Cook said he fully supports Lauenstein and her family in the decision and hopes she will find peace and healing. 

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13 Whitney Lauenstein

“There are bigger things in life than volleyball,” he said. “Whit will be missed by everyone involved with our program, especially her Husker teammates and coaches. She will always be a Husker.”

This season, Lauenstein finished the season averaging 2.78 kills and 1.07 blocks per set, both of which were second-best for the Huskers. In addition, she led NU with 28 aces this year. 

Lauenstein’s father, Ryan, passed away in early February 2021 during her senior year of high school. She said that also weighed on her decision to put volleyball aside in her final few months of high school at Waverly High.

“Playing volleyball and running track both didn’t give me enough time to really focus on my family,” Lauenstein said to the Lincoln Journal Star that spring. “High school sports, you don’t have to do it 24/7, and with track, there’s not very much on the weekends. It was just too much stress for club volleyball right now to play that on the weekends.

Lauenstein appeared in 27 matches as a freshman, but often only briefly as part of a double-substitute package. She recorded just 67 kills while hitting .130 as she mostly sat behind fellow freshman Lindsay Krause at opposite. 

She flashed potential in the spring match against Kansas with 12 kills and eight blocks. During the nonconference schedule, the 6-foot-2 sophomore led Nebraska with 3.60 kills per set with a .325 hitting percentage. The highlight of her season came in the Creighton match when she recorded 25 kills on a .385 hitting percentage leading NU to a five-set victory.

However, opponents started to make kills harder to come by during the second half of the Big Ten season. While she put up big numbers against Northwestern and Iowa, she totaled just 12 kills during the rematch with Iowa and versus Purdue and Wisconsin. She finished the season with 12 kills in NU’s five-set loss to Oregon in the regional semifinals.

Lauenstein’s post said there had been rumors about her status since the end of the season after Florida transfer Merritt Beason announced her commitment to the Huskers on Dec. 23. NU coach John Cook said Nebraska’s roster underwent “adjustments” since the season ended. With Lauenstein’s departure, the Huskers are at the limit of 12 scholarships.

“Thank you everyone for the unconditional love and support,” she wrote. “The Nebraska fan base is unlike any other!”