‘Well-coached’ and athletic Hornets await Huskers in first round

By Lincoln Arneal

It doesn’t take a doctor to design an effective volleyball defense, but maybe it helps. 

That’s the case for Delaware State coach Dr. Bruce Atkinson, who earned a doctor of chiropractic from Southern California University of Health Sciences in 1996. The Hornets enter their first-ever NCAA tournament with an opponents’ hitting percentage of .132, which is second in the nation – behind only Nebraska. 

The second-seeded Huskers and Delaware State will face off Thursday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Devaney Sports Center. No. 7 Miami plays Kansas in the other first-round match.

“They’ve got some good athletes. They are very well coached,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “The style is a little bit different but they do a nice job.”

Only two teams have hit above .300 against Delaware State, while the Hornets have held four opponents to negative hitting. However, this isn’t a one-year fluke as DSU was also third in hitting percentage in 2021 at .130.

The Hornets aren’t overly tall – they start three players at 6-foot-1 – but instead rely upon their athleticism to thwart the opponent’s attack. DSU averages 2.22 blocks and 12.60 digs per set, which are both less than the Huskers, who are at 2.7 blocks 15.63 digs per set. 

DSU has a diverse roster of four Puerto Ricans and players from Turkey and Poland. Nebraska isn’t completely foreign to all of its players as outside hitter Karen Codero was a junior college All-American at Western Nebraska Community College. 

HAMES BACK IN PRACTICE — Senior setter Nicklin Hames participated in about 40 percent of Nebraska’s practice on Wednesday. She was at practice for the entire 90 minutes but did not participate in all of it. 

Hames did not play in the Huskers’ match against Minnesota on Saturday, sitting out with an undisclosed illness. Junior Anni Evans took her place in the two-setter system. 

PASSING PATTERS — The Huskers have used their practices this week to get more comfortable with their new defensive alignments after losing senior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles to a knee injury last week. 

Sophomore outside hitter Ally Batenhorst started to play in the back row and joined senior Madi Kubik and sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez in passing rotations. 

“We had to get through the rough patches, but I think we’re all pretty confident next to each other now,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve dialed in the seams and the communication between each other.”

Cook said he plans to continue to use Batenhorst in all six rotations and she held her own passing last week. The only other options he would consider in the back row are sophomore Lindsay Krause, who has been playing opposite, and freshman Hayden Kubik, who hasn’t played since September. 

Batenhorst recorded nine digs against Wisconsin and 11 versus Minnesota. Cook said they are constantly developing all their hitters to play all the way around. Sometimes it just takes a little more time. 

“It’s not like all of a sudden, ‘Oh, you’re gonna pass now and dig now,’” Cook said. “She trains defense every day. She trains passing every day. All the outside hitters do. We’re always training them because at some point in their career, we want them to be six rotations.”

ALL LEAGUE — Kubik and Rodriguez were unanimous selections for the All-Big Ten first team. It was the second straight year both were recognized on the first team. Kubik was also a second-team pick in 2019.

Cook said coaches recognize Kubik’s all-around game and her contributions to the Huskers. 

“It’s a tough team to make,” Cook said. “Madi is a six-rotation player that does everything for us. … That’s a big deal. It’s the hardest position to play. And Lexi is the best libero in the conference. So I’d call that a no-brainer.”

Middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord and Bekka Allick were named to the Big Ten second team. Allick was also a unanimous pick for the Big Ten all-freshman team. Hord has been named to the first team three times (2019, 2020, 2021), plus the second team in 2018.

Junior setter Anni Evans was Nebraska’s recipient of the Big Ten sportsmanship award. 

Nebraska didn’t claim any individual Big Ten awards. Minnesota outside hitter Taylor Landfair won the player of the year. Ohio State players earned two honors as libero Kylie Murr was named the best defensive player, and Mac Podraza as the top setter. Purdue outside hitter Eva Hudson was selected as the freshman of the year, and Big Ten champ Wisconsin had Kelly Sheffield earn coach of the year honors. 

PREP AWARDS — Several future Huskers were recognized as MaxPreps All-Americans. Bergen Reilly (O’Gorman High, Sioux Falls, S.D.) was selected as a first-team all-around athlete and was joined by outside hitter Harper Murray (Skyline High, Ann Arbor, Mich). 

Libero Laney Choboy and opposite Caroline Jurevicius made the second team. 

Omaha Skutt coach Renee Saunders was named the national coach of the year.

With Knuckles Out, Cook May Have Sense of Déjà Vu

By Lincoln Arneal

The timing was horrible.

A top-five-ranked Nebraska team was entering the last week of the regular season trying to win a conference championship when it lost a significant contributor to a knee injury. However, the Huskers regrouped and advanced to the final four in Omaha. 

A bold prediction for the future of this year’s Huskers? Not quite. Nebraska and John Cook have been here before. 

In 2008, middle blocker Kori Cooper tore her anterior cruciate ligament during a five-set loss to Texas in late November. So when Nebraska lost defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles to a knee injury before its final two matches, Kori Cooper Clements could relate and was heartbroken for the senior co-captain. 

“It’s just that’s something you obviously never want to see happen, especially with the timing,” Clements said. “It’s very familiar to me, right before the tournament. So I just hate it for her.”

While injuries are common in college volleyball, those are the only times Cook has had a player suffer a severe knee injury during his time at Nebraska. NU will miss Knuckles as a key defensive player in the back row and as an occasional attacking option. In her place, sophomore outside hitter Ally Batenhorst played all six rotations. 

CE5A8480 800
02 Kenzie Knuckles

“Losing a great player like that, somebody’s gotta step up, and our team has to step up,” Cook said. “That’s sports.”

In 2008, that player was redshirt freshman Jordan Wilberger, a walk-on from Scottsbluff. She averaged 1.11 kills and one block per set over the final seven matches.

However, the rest of the team helped fill the void. Clements said that team had strong leadership from Jordan Larson, Amanda Gates and Rachel Schwartz that provided stability to handle the adversity with grace. 

She said she sees the same spirit embodied in this year’s team with leadership provided by seniors Madi Kubik, Nicklin Hames and sophomore Lexi Rodriguez. 

“There wasn’t any rallying around one person. It was just rallying for each other,” she said. “When I think about the ‘With each other, for each other’ (motto) that the Nebraska team has adopted these last few years, it seems like that really describes that 2008 team. They didn’t rally around me. They didn’t rally around one player. They didn’t do it for any player. They did it for the group as a whole. And that’s why it was such a successful year.”

Rodriguez said dealing with losing Knuckles has made them stronger as a group. They’ve dealt with changing lineups, injuries and other adversity, but they’ve relied on each other to keep moving forward. 

“Even though this past weekend, we did come out with two losses, I think we played a different type of volleyball that we haven’t played all year, and we really had grit,” she said. “We know the people that are able to play, and we know that each and every person has to do their job, and at the end of the day, that’s what our plan is to do.”

In 2008, Cook said that the team wasn’t the most talented, but their chemistry helped them achieve greater results. He’s echoed that sentiment this season, saying the players enjoy each other’s company and are very tight-knit. 

Kubik said they need to focus on everyone doing their job and not trying to do too much. 

“We worry a lot about each other and making sure everyone’s good and feeling good,” she said. Sometimes that’s not productive to do during matches. So everyone going out there to focus on their job and doing their job well is going to help us to win matches.”

With Knuckles relegated to the sidelines, she has tried to instill confidence and a sense of urgency in the Huskers. Rodriguez said Knuckles has told them she still believes in them and that they can be successful this season.

In watching the Wisconsin and Minnesota matches, Clements saw Knuckles continue to be a leader and help her teammates even though she was not on the court. 

“I watched Kenzie stepping seamlessly into that role,” she said. “That’s what that group needs for her. That’s what she was when she was on the court and she can still do that just from a different perspective.”

The one difference from Knuckles is Clements’ injury came during her junior year, while Knuckles announced last week that this season would be her last. 

Clements, who also blew out her knee as a senior in high school, said the rehab was difficult. She rebounded and was named all-Big 12 in 2009. She is amazed that Knuckles’ injury is only the second knee injury during Cook’s tenure and thankful others don’t have to experience what she went through. 

“That’s a huge testament to Nebraska strength and conditioning and athletic training,” she said. “Not only is this not a common occurrence. In fact, it’s a rare, rare occurrence. I mean, I just think, wow, they got to be doing something right.”

After Clements’ injury, Nebraska eventually won the Big 12 championship during the season finale against Baylor. The Huskers’ goal of reaching the final four seemed in jeopardy, trailing Washington 9-3 in the fifth set, but NU rallied to win 15-13.  

The Huskers’ run ended in the national semifinals with a five-set loss to Penn State. Wilberger shone on the big stage with six kills on .308 hitting. The two sets won by NU were the only sets dropped by the Nittany Lions, who eventually claimed the second of their four straight NCAA championships. 

Clements was relegated to the bench during that final four run but became an iconic figure, wearing a camouflage jacket and waving a towel to encourage the fans and her teammates. She said the jacket was symbolic of the fight NU needed to bring to every match and was one way she could help out in her new role from the bench.

“It was just one little thing that I could do,” she said. “Can I put this (jacket) on, rally this towel and get this crowd going and fire my team up and is that going to make a difference? And it did.”

Huskers Host Delaware State in 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament

By Lincoln Arneal

Nebraska had to wait a little longer to learn its place in the NCAA volleyball tournament, but it was worth it in the end. 

The Huskers were the last ones announced in the 64-team field as they earned the No. 2 seed in the Louisville region. NU will play MEAC champion Delaware State on Thursday. No. 7 seed Miami will play Kansas in the other first-round match with the winners meeting on Friday. 

NU players used the extra time as they exchanged gifts during commercials as part of their Secret Santa party. 

“We’re looking forward to playing all the teams that are on our side,” sophomore Lexi Rodrigeuz said. “We don’t like to wait, but nothing we can do.”

If seedings hold, the Huskers would face No. 3 Oregon in the regional semifinal and then former Nebraska player and assistant coach Dani Busboom Kelly and her 26-2 Cardinals.

Nebraska will start its prep for Delaware State, which no one knew anything about, but they quickly learned they are second in the nation in opponent’s hitting percentage at .132, which is three points behind the Huskers. 

“I don’t know a thing about them. I don’t even know their nickname,” NU coach John Cook said. “But right now, that’s our focus. We’re glad to be playing.”

While the Huskers knew their name would be called eventually, the only other mystery would be when they would play. For the first time since 2012, NU will play its opening round match on Thursday. 

The move might not benefit the Huskers immediately. They are trying to figure out new passing patterns after losing defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles for the season with a knee injury. Also, setter Nicklin Hames will have one less day to recover after missing Saturday’s match while feeling under the weather. 

Senior Madi Kubik said the past week was draining emotionally and physically. However, they are ready to put it behind them and focus on the postseason. 

“These next couple of days are going to be really big for our team to take time to recover and get reset,” she said. We look at these next couple of matches as kind of a fresh start.”

Even though Nebraska lost both its matches to close the regular season, Idaho State University Director of Athletics Pauline Thiros, the selection committee chair, said the Huskers’ body of work kept it above Minnesota, who swept NU on Saturday. 

Thiros said Nebraska separated itself against common opponents as the Huskers went 17-4, while the Gophers went 14-7. She added that Minnesota had three losses outside the Top 25, while Nebraska had none. She also credited Nebraska for two top-10 wins against Ohio State and Kentucky. 

“Our obligation is to look at the entire body of work, which made this a really, really robust discussion,” she said. “Minnesota is hot and ultimately they both are two (seeds) in the bracket, so they are both in a great position.” 

Elsewhere, Texas earned the top overall seed.  Ohio State and Minnesota got placed in the Austin region. Wisconsin was the third-overall seed and could have to go through Penn State and Pitt to make the Final Four. 

Stanford earned the final No. 1 seed, getting the nod over 27-1 San Diego, the No. 2 seed in the region. Creighton was seeded fourth in the Cardinal’s region and will host Auburn in the first round. 

The Southeastern Conference placed seven teams in the tournament, with Kentucky and Florida leading the way as No. 3 seeds. The Big Ten and Pac-12 each had six teams qualify, while five teams from the ACC and Big 12 are in the field. 

Five of the Huskers’ nonconference opponents qualified. In addition to Stanford, Creighton and Kentucky, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine each earned at-large bids. Cook said they tried to schedule tough but also allow the team to develop at a natural progression. 

“There’s always an art to scheduling so that’s why those are really important matches,” he said. “I’ve been talking about how this team shows up every night and they get after it and play. They don’t take anybody lightly, and they know they’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

Minnesota Spoils Senior Night and Sweep the Huskers

By Lincoln Arneal

The roller coaster ride of emotions continued on Saturday for the Nebraska volleyball team. 

Three days after losing their captain and defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles and less than 24 hours after losing a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title against Wisconsin, the fifth-ranked Huskers went back into scramble mode after setter Nicklin Hames was ruled out against Minnesota. 

Hames tried to practice earlier Saturday but only lasted 20 minutes and was on the bench in street clothes under the weather. Nebraska adjusted by inserting junior Anni Evans into the lineup and flipping their opposite hitters. 

While the Huskers looked sharp to start the match, they couldn’t hold No. 9 Minnesota, which earned its first sweep in Lincoln in 42 years with a 25-22, 25-23, 25-22 victory during senior night Saturday night at the Devaney Center.

NU coach John Cook compared all the moves they’ve made this week with the people who spin plates on sticks and try to keep them all up. The Huskers (24-5, 16-4) have been in scramble mode dealing with injuries and lineup changes.

“I feel for our players because it’s so hard to get a great team going,” he said. “Six days ago, we were humming. Then you can see one player, one situation – then two players. It changes everything. It’s why volleyball is an ultimate team game. It’s six people, 900 square feet, the ball’s moving fast.”

For the first 30 points of the match, Nebraska looked like its old self and led 19-11 in the first set. 

However, the Gophers (20-8, 15-5) quickly changed the momentum and ran off four straight points. After a service error, Minnesota tacked on three more points. Whitney Lauenstein ended that streak, but the Gophers struck back with a 6-0 run. NU fought off one set point, but missed on its last serve of the set to complete a run where Minnesota won 14 of the final 17 rallies. 

Cook said he couldn’t remember the last time an opponent made a run like that on the Huskers. 

“I thought we came out playing great, but then you saw what happens when you don’t practice. You’re not in a rhythm,” he said. “We just got discombobulated and lost that first game with a big run.”

Lauenstein, who led Nebraska with 11 kills and a .364 hitting percentage, said NU became too passive and allowed the Gophers to dictate the action. 

“We were trying to kill balls but were we really trying to kill balls, or we’re just trying to get them over and in?” she said. “In that moment, we should have grouped together a little bit more.”

Minnesota used a 7-1 run with five straight points to grab a 14-10 lead in the second set. The Gophers looked poised to close out the set, but NU staved off the first three tries before another service error ended the set. 

In the third set, Nebraska went on an 11-1 run for a 14-8 advantage. However, Minnesota again rallied, turning a 16-11 deficit to a 23-18 lead behind a run with six unanswered points. 

Lindsay Krause also added 11 kills for the Huskers. Outside hitters Madi Kubik and Ally Batenhorst both finished with five kills and 11 digs. Bekka Allick also had five kills with three blocks, while Kaitlyn Hord added four.

Sophomore Lexi Rodriguez also chipped in 11 digs. Evans finished with a double-double of 15 assists and 10 digs. Kennedi Orr tallied 18 assists as NU hit .153.

Taylor Landfair led the Gophers with 15 kills. Freshman Carter Booth added seven kills at a .636 clip with eight blocks. Minnesota outblocked the Huskers 10-5. 

Cook said he is hopeful Nebraska can regroup next week and use practices to put together all the pieces for a postseason run. 

“We played hard. We competed hard. We didn’t give up. Our players deserve some credit for that. Minnesota deserves credit for winning that match. They played really well tonight and it has just been a tough week for our players.”

After the match, the Huskers honored its four seniors – Kubik, Knuckles, Hord and Hames – in an emotional ceremony. 

“Not being able to get that win for them on senior night was really hard for a lot of us because they’ve given so much to this program,” Krause said. 

Nebraska will learn its postseason fate Sunday night when the field of 64 will be announced at 6:30 on ESPNU. The Huskers will likely host the first- and second-round matches but will go on the road for the regional round. The final four will be played at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.

Wisconsin defeats NU in Four Friday Night

By Lincoln Arneal

Nebraska has spent all season building to have a shot at knocking off defending national champion Wisconsin. However, just when it appeared the Huskers were trending in the right direction, tragedy struck.

NU lost Kenzie Knuckles to a knee injury on Wednesday, forcing them to scramble its lineup 48 hours before taking on the Badgers. No. 5 Nebraska played well in spurts, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Wisconsin’s relentless attack as the Badgers earned a 25-21, 21-25, 25-21, 25-19 victory Friday night at the Devaney Center. 

With the win, Wisconsin (24-3, 18-1) won its 17th match in a row this season, 10th straight over the Huskers and clinched its fourth straight Big Ten championship.

NU coach John Cook said Knuckles’ injury was a freak accident as she was backpedaling during the end of practice. He said he has only seen two ACL injuries in his 23 years at Nebraska. 

“We had our heart ripped out on Wednesday,” Cook said. “We had a great week of practice. Our team was peaking. It felt really good, and then that happened and it just took all the wind out of the sails.”

Even though Knuckles only plays back row, she has an enormous impact on the Huskers. The senior co-captain had only missed five sets in her career but spent the match on the bench wearing a full-leg knee brace. Cook called Knuckles the best middle-back passer in the country and the team MVP for the heart she plays with and her impact on other players.  

During the postgame press conference, sophomore Ally Batenhorst got emotional when talking about what it was like not to have Knuckles on the court. 

“We really look up to her,” she said. “She’s just a big leader and cares a lot for her teammates, and it’s really hard.”

As a result of Knuckles’ absence, the Huskers (24-4, 16-3) switched around its lineup with Batenhorst playing all six rotations. In addition, Batenhorst flipped positions with Madi Kubik to give the senior outside hitter more rotations in the passing zone. 

Batenhorst finished with 18 serve receptions while giving up just one ace. Wisconsin servers targeted Kubik and libero Lexi Rodriguez 34 and 29 times, respectively. 

Even though she finished with 13 digs, Kubik struggled on offense, finishing with seven kills and seven errors.  

“I think it affected Madi tonight not having her soulmate out there,” Cook said. “It’s got to be really tough.” 

The Huskers played like a team without its emotional leader to start the match, giving up four kills on the first four rallies. Wisconsin led by as much as 22-13 before calling their last timeout. During that break, Knuckles talked emphatically with her teammates, urging them to fight harder. 

“She was just reminding us to trust our training, believing in what we got and we have to leave it all out on the floor because at the end of the day, we were playing for a title today and we had a chance,” senior Kaitlyn Hord said. “She said some really amazing things that did fire us up.” 

NU regrouped with five straight points out of the timeout, but the Huskers couldn’t recover from the slow start. Batenhorst carried the load offensively early with six of her 10 kills coming in the first set. She accounted for more than 40 percent of NU’s kills and attacks in the set. 

Nebraska carried the momentum in the second set and slugged it out early. Nebraska took the first lead larger than two points at 21-18 after a 4-0 burst. The Badgers committed three hitting errors and Rodriguez capped off the run with an ace that gave the Husker the cushion to even the match. 

The third set also featured a 17-17 tie, but this time the Badgers’ attackers delivered as Julia Orzol and Devyn Robinson recorded kills. Robinson finished with a match-high 16 kills and a .323 hitting percentage. 

After Nebraska tied the fourth set at 8-all with four straight points, the Badgers took over with a 6-0 run. The Huskers closed to 22-18 but couldn’t muster enough offense down the stretch. 

“We went soft a little bit sometimes and when we needed to really attack them,” Batenhorst said. “We gave them a lot of free balls and we weren’t as aggressive as we probably should. have been from the start. I think that really bit us in the butt.”

Even though the offense was erratic, Nebraska’s middle blockers played their best-combined match of the season. Hord tallied a season-high 13 kills on a .500 hitting percentage to lead Nebraska. Freshman Bekka Allick added nine kills and six blocks. 

“We just realized that in order to be successful as a whole, we have to have everybody on offensively,” Hord said. “We’ve been working on it all week in practice – different timing, new tempo and it really paid off.”

Lindsay Krause totaled 12 kills and hit .370. Nicklin Hames finished with 25 assists and nine digs, while Kennedi Orr added 17 assists. Libero Lexi Rodriguez amassed a match-high 17 digs. 

The Huskers hit .200 for the match, but too often tried to tip over the Wisconsin block or hit a roll shot that didn’t go for kills often enough. The Badgers took advantage and went on runs that made a difference in each set they claimed. 

“We’re a little bit out of sync at times, especially in chaotic plays,” Cook said. “We were kind of uptight and were very undisciplined. We couldn’t put enough pressure on Wisconsin with our block and defense and transition.”

The Badgers finished hitting .235 as Sarah Franklin tallied 12 kills and Anna Smrek added 11. 

The Huskers won’t have long to dwell on the loss as they take on No. 9 Minnesota Saturday night. 

Even though the Big Ten title is no longer on the line, the Huskers still have seeding to play for and a solo runner-up finish. In addition, they will honor the four seniors – Kubik, Hord, Hames and Knuckles after the match. 

 “We got to clean it up and play a little better than we did tonight,” Cook said. “Minnesota is great, great team and we got to see if we can play a little sharper  and cleaner and see if we can get a win.”

Pierce Is Producing Another Budding Star Set to Rise in Lincoln

By Shawn Ekwall

Mark Brahmer has coached his share of talented football players.

Over his 27 seasons as the head man at Pierce High, which has gone 221-66 under his tutelage, two players stand above the rest.

One is tight end Matt Herian, who possessed an uncommon combination of size, speed and athleticism that eventually landed him at Nebraska where he was on the edge of stardom in the early-2000s before a nasty leg injury all but derailed his career.

The other is Brahmer’s son, Ben, also a tight end, who plays a little receiver, too. He has size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds), speed and athleticism. Ben will head to Nebraska on scholarship next fall. The comparisons are hard to avoid.

“Matt … we had to move him around more,” Coach Brahmer said. “The game has changed for Ben. He learned wide receiver play as a young guy, where Matt was a more straight ahead kind of guy early on. We had to move Matt around as he got older and he learned the receiver position later. Both had those attributes – good speed, could jump and catch.”

Herian’s years under Brahmer at Pierce were from 1998-2001. In that span, the Bluejays earned a pair of Class C-1 runner-up finishes in 1999 and 2001.

Ben and his 2022 senior teammates will be looking to add a second state title in their four years. They finished as runner-up a year ago, losing to Columbus Lakeview in the finals at Memorial Stadium.

* * *

At first, Coach Brahmer had a tough time convincing people how good Herian was.

He posted eye-popping stats, sure, but the conventional wisdom was that he was doing it against small schools.

“Nobody believed how good he was,” Brahmer said. 

That changed one day in 2001, when Herian and his coach were at a summer football camp at NU. After one session, Husker receivers coach Ron Brown asked Herian to stay late with a few other receivers and tight ends.

“I think it was Day 2 of camp, and Coach Brown asked Matt to stay back and run one more drill,” Brahmer said. “Coach was throwing behind receivers forcing them to adjust to make a tough catch. He throws high and way behind Matt, and Matt reaches back with his left hand and makes a one-handed, bare-hand catch.

“I was standing by (recruiting coordinator) Jeff Jamrog and prior to that play, he asked me point blank, ‘Can Matt play here?’ I told him, ‘Yes, I believe he can.’

“After that play, Jamrog grinned and shook his head and said, ‘I think you’re right.’”

Herian, while vaguely recalling the moment, said it was indeed the summer camp circuit prior to his senior year that elevated his stock.

“I had a breakout year my sophomore year (1999) but didn’t go to camps that summer because I pulled a hamstring in track that spring,” Herian said. “So the next summer I was on a few schools’ radars and had an offer from Coach (Dan) McCarney after Iowa State’s camp. Then I went to camp at UNL and really put my best foot forward and tested out well. That’s when Coach Solich told me I’d be getting a letter in the mail and to make sure I read it.”

Herian went on to play for the Huskers from 2002-2006. He was on pace for a monster year in 2004 before suffering a compound fracture of his left leg against Missouri in late October. The injury forced him to miss the entire 2005 season before playing in 2006 as a senior.

He finished with a modest 12 catches and two touchdowns as a senior after tallying 46 catches for 792 yards and six TDs his sophomore and junior years.

Tampa Bay signed him as a free agent in 2007, but an Achilles injury at the tail end of training camp ended his hopes of making the team.

Herian has since made peace with his unfortunate injury situations.

“There’s always what-ifs in the back of your mind,” Herian said. “But by that time Coach Callahan was on board and they brought in some other guys like Maurice (Purify), Nate (Swift) and Marlon (Lucky).

“They maybe depended on me more before my injury, but things happen.”

* * *

Like so many small-town Nebraska kids, Ben Brahmer’s life-long goal was to play for the home-state Huskers.

That dream will become a reality after Ben committed to Nebraska back in April of 2021.

Growing up with older sisters Jaci and Maggie, both college volleyball players, along with mom Carmen, a former Doane track standout, it was the ladies of the household who many times set the tone for Ben as far as work ethic.

“It’s every little kid’s dream growing up to play in Memorial Stadium,” Ben said. “And I credit my sisters who helped me become a better athlete. They showed me early on how hard you had to work. I knew I had to put that work in to get where I wanted.”

Jaci and Maggie both were standout athletes at Pierce High and both continued their volleyball careers at Wayne State. They spent many hours in the gym, practicing not only volleyball, but also basketball while training to build speed and agility.

Ben credits his parents for providing him the support he’s needed over the years, saying they’ve “pushed me to work hard and helped me become a man.”

Coach Brahmer says wife, the former Carmen Kapke,  provides the “softer” side of the two. He admittedly tends to have a rougher edge. And he readily acknowledges that whatever athletic talents his kids have comes from mom.

“She was a great athlete in high school (Fairbury High) and in college. An All-American,” he said. “A lot of the kids’ abilities come from her. I was a two-hour a day weight room guy just to keep up.”

* * *

One of Ben’s favorite plays is one his dad put in years ago for Herian. It’s a play the Bluejays still use today. Its name won’t be revealed here due to the up-tempo offense and vocal calls the Bluejays make at the line of scrimmage. But it’s no surprise it’s still successful with Ben as the target.

“We still run it quite a bit and even scored a TD against Wahoo,” Ben said. “We run a no-huddle offense so we can make the call right at the line.”

Ben’s 142 receiving yards and two TDs on an opening-night 38-7 win over the Warriors showcased his growth over his four years in high school.

While his receiving stats have logically trended upward each of his three seasons, he will have his hands full improving on last year’s 63 catches for 1,119 yards and 13 TDs.

In a Week 2 win over Columbus Scotus, Ben lined up not only at tight end, but receiver, H-back and punt returner.

Speed and strength gains are evident. Hard work in the weight room will do that. Time spent lifting continues to push his game to higher levels.

Herian, who spends many Friday nights on the chain gang at Pierce games, has noticed the continued growth.

“He’s probably a bit taller than me, but he’s definitely a more defined route runner than I was,” said Herian, who was listed at Nebraska in 2004 at 6-5, 240. “I was more straight away, speed, off play-action. Ben is just so technically sound in what he does.

“He’s still developing. You can see his body has more muscle mass, and he’s not afraid to mix it up.”

There are similarities, sure, but Coach Brahmer also sees differences between Ben and Herian.

“Ben has good agility and can change directions,” the elder Brahmer said. ”Both those guys jump really well and are physical blockers. Both catch it real well. Matt’s hands were so soft. They both did, and do, so many things well.”

For Ben that includes running intermediate routes or beating the defense over the top. With his added size, he’s also a ready and able blocker on running plays.

“I feel like I’m pretty versatile,” Ben said. “We run the ball a lot here, and I’m the main blocking tight end, but I can also get behind the defense on my routes if needed.”

* * *

Having your father as your coach can test one’s resolve. There are highs and lows. It isn’t always smooth sailing.

But Ben wouldn’t have it any other way. Playing for his dad has been a great experience, even if it’s not always easy.

“He has to be harder on me,” Ben said. “If he wasn’t, others wouldn’t have as much respect for me.”

Said his dad: “It’s been very enjoyable, but it hasn’t been easy on us. He knows I’m not going to play favorites and he’s had to earn it. But I think it’s helped prepare him for the next step to be coached up hard.”

That next step is fast approaching. And Ben feels like he’s ready to take his game to the next level in Lincoln.

“I know the competition is a lot better, but as long as I can catch the ball and get open, I can fit in,” Ben said. “I talk with Thomas (Fidone, an NU tight end) quite a bit, and he’s a great guy. In talking with Coach Whipple, he loves to use his tight ends. I just need to get down there and get some more weight on me. I hope to add 20 pounds and still run pretty well.”

Before graduating to his life as a Husker, a senior season full of individual and team goals at Pierce plays out. The ultimate aspiration? Capturing another state title.

“Personally, I’m kind of a quiet guy,” Ben said. “I want to get out of my shell and be more of a vocal leader. But as a team our two goals are simple: go undefeated and win state.”

According to Coach Brahmer, his son is blessed to play with a talented group of senior teammates.

“Ben’s fortunate he has a lot of good athletes in his class,” Brahmer said. “(Quarterback) Abram Scholting’s been pitching to him for a while. We have good running backs, are lucky to have a good line and some other talented receivers. Ben’s fortunate things have fallen into place for him.”

* * *

Herian knows the leap from Class C-1 high school football to a Power Five school is difficult. Yet he sees the tools Ben brings to the table. He’s convinced he has what it takes to succeed at NU.

“You can see each year he’s built better,” Herian said. “Personally, I see him as a possession receiver at Nebraska. He’s not gonna blow the top off a defense, but he’ll be that guy that consistently gets open on those 5-, 8- and 10-yard routes.”

Herian also mentioned the culture of the Pierce community and the work ethic ingrained in the kids for decades as being factors that will help Ben at NU.

Visit with anyone from Pierce, he says, and sooner or later a consistent theme will surface: Hard work.

The northeast Nebraska town of 1,973 is proud of its hard-working, punch-the-clock culture, whether it’s working in agriculture or in a large plant in nearby Norfolk. Culture is one of the reasons the Bluejays are always at or near the top of Class C-1. And also why many Pierce alumni come back rather than leave their small town for perceived greener pastures.

Herian has returned home to farm and raise a family of four children with wife Lynsey.

“There’s just a lot of pride here. A blue-collar mentality,” he said. He points out that there are a lot of dads who played in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s whose sons also played or are playing now. It’s tradition. “You have so many believers in the program, and Coach Brahmer has a special talent in bringing out the best in his players.”

“Sometimes people will say to me, ‘Pierce is a football town,’ Brahmer said. “I don’t see it that way. We’re a community that wants to do well in everything we do, not just football.”

Herian played his part more than 20 years ago. An example for future Bluejays. Now it’s Ben who carries the torch.

“We both grew up in Pierce as small town kids,” Ben said. “We’re just hard workers that go to work every single day.”

Somewhere the next great Pierce tight end is watching.

Huskers Eye Big Opportunity Against No. 3 Wisconsin

By Lincoln Arneal

Kenzie Knuckles doesn’t need any big speeches or hype videos to get up for this week’s match against Wisconsin. 

When asked if she had any extra motivation to close the regular season knocking off the third-ranked Badgers, Knuckles was blunt with her assessment. 

“Yeah, I can’t lie. We haven’t beat them yet,” she said. “I have a good feeling about it. If we play our game, if we play Nebraska volleyball, we’ll be fine.”

The senior defensive specialist has come up short seven times against the Badgers in her career as part of an eight-match winning streak by UW dating back to 2018. Last year, Wisconsin clinched the Big Ten championship against the Huskers in the final week of the season and then won its first national championship with a five-set victory over NU. The Badgers also ended Knuckles’ freshman season with a win in the regional finals. 

The Big Ten rivals meet again Friday night at the Devaney Center with the Big Ten title on the line. Wisconsin is a game ahead of the fifth-ranked Huskers in the standings and can clinch the Big Ten championship with a win this week. NU needs a victory Friday and then either a win over Minnesota or a Wisconsin loss to Ohio State on Saturday to earn at least a share of the title. 

Despite all the history, NU coach John Cook said his goal is to get the Huskers to treat this like any other match. He said they haven’t talked specifically about Wisconsin, but instead have focused on getting to the final week of the regular season being in position to win a title. 

They’ve been talking about their goal to win the Big Ten title since January and now they are in position to achieve it. 

“As it gets later in the season, the points get bigger and bigger. There’s more on the line,” Cook said. “You want to be in the poker game? You got to throw in more chips. So all the chips are on the table.” 

The Badgers look a little different than the last time the teams met a month ago. Anna Smrek is only playing in the middle while Jade Demps received more time at opposite. Last match Caroline Crawford was featured at middle blocker, but she hasn’t played since Nov. 3. Also, the Badgers experimented with a 5-1 offensive system against Rutgers. 

Wisconsin has plenty of weapons. Sarah Franklin put up 21 kills against the Huskers last time out. Danielle Hart has been on fire lately for the Badgers as she has 36 kills on 51 swings without any errors. Devyn Robinson posted a 17-kill, eight-block performance against Penn State last week.

“Defensively it’s a big challenge, but we’ve got to side out better if we want it,” Cook said. “We got to be better offensively and side out better because we gave up too many runs.”

Madi Kubik, the senior outside hitter, said NU needs to worry about what they are doing and not get too caught up on Wisconsin’s lineup or any past results. 

“We’re focusing on the things that we can do and the things that are really important to our team and what helps us to play great volleyball regardless of who’s on the other side of the net,” Kubik said. “In past times that we’ve played them, we haven’t always been 100 percent on those things.”

In addition to playing for a Big Ten title, the Huskers’ play this weekend will also impact their seed for the NCAA tournament. When asked if the Big Ten champ should get one of the top four seeds that host the regional round, both Cook and Kubik agreed with the sentiment, but acknowledged that nothing is certain when it comes to the selection committee. 

“Don’t ever guess with the NCAA,” Cook said. “All I know is whoever wins the Big Ten certainly deserves it. If you want to host, win the Big Ten.”

NEW CONNECTION — When Kennedi Orr checked into the Ohio State game more than a week ago, she was in a new position. Every time Orr had played this season, she was either running a solo offensive system or the No. 1 setter. 

However, with Hames starting on the court, she came off the bench for the first time. In addition, she was paired with opposite Lindsay Krause. The sophomore outside hitter said they mesh well because they have similar personalities and they try to bring some fire when they check in. 

“When we don’t start the match, we make a really big effort to bring energy onto the court,” Krause said. “We want to make sure that when we come in we bring it up no matter where it is. We want to bring up the level even higher.”

While they worked in practice on their chemistry, they had not connected much in matches with just two assists in the previous two months. In the final two sets against Ohio State and the next two matches, Orr assisted on 14 of Krause’s 20 kills. In that same time frame, Orr assisted on 10 kills from Batenhorst and eight total from Kubik, Hord and Allick. 

Krause’s most efficient performance of the season came against Iowa with 10 kills on 15 swings and no errors. 

“I think they are in a good rhythm,” Cook 

KUBIK CLAIMS AWARD — Kubik earned her fourth career Big Ten Player of the Week award on Monday. 

She recorded 14 kills and 9 digs against Iowa and added a season-high 17 kills plus 11 digs against Purdue on Sunday, while hitting .347 for the week. 

Kubik won the weekly league honors once as a freshman and back-to-back weeks last season.

Kubik and Knuckles Not Returning For A Fifth Year

By Lincoln Arneal

Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles entered the Nebraska program together, and after this season, they will leave together. 

Both Husker seniors said they would not be using their extra year, and this season at Nebraska will be their last. 

Knuckles said it was a difficult decision because of the familial feel to the team, and she talked with NU coach John Cook multiple times about it, but the timing was right. 

“It’s so hard saying goodbye to it,” Knuckles said Tuesday. “After four and a half years, I think that the time has come where me and Madi, we got here together, and we’re going to leave together. It’s just like passing the baton off.”

Kubik said she struggled with the decision but is thankful for the time she’s had with the Huskers. 

“I’ve absolutely loved my career,” she said. “I’m really excited for our younger players to get the opportunity to be leaders in the program. To just encourage them and mentor them this season has been really great. I’m excited for the future.”

The future includes a bevy of top-ranked prospects. According to PrepVolleyball.com, Nebraska’s past three recruiting classes were ranked 1, 2, 1. 

The Huskers already feature sophomores Lexi Rodriguez, Lindsay Krause, Ally Batenhorst, Whitney Lauenstein and Kennedi Orr. Freshmen Bekka Allick and Maggie Mendelson have received significant playing time, plus Kubik’s younger sister, Hayden, has looked sharp in limited time. The incoming class includes five of the top 13 ranked prospects, including No. 2 Harper Murray, an outside hitter, and No. 5 Laney Choboy, who plays libero.

Kubik has been a constant presence in the lineup during her entire career. She’s played in every match and has been a six-rotation player since her first match. She was the VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year and the top Big Ten freshman. 

She was second-team all-Big Ten in 2019 and first-team in 2021. Last season, the 6-foot-3 outside hitter led Nebraska with 3.79 kills per set and was named a third-team All-American. 

Knuckles played the first two years as the Huskers’ libero and earned all-Big Ten freshman honors. However, her role changed in the past two seasons as she gave way to All-American Lexi Rodriguez at libero. Knuckles switched to a defensive specialist but took on an attacking role from the back row. 

She also emerged as a leader for the team and was elected captain for the past two seasons. 

Three players have come back to Nebraska for a fifth year – Lexi Sun, Lauren Stivrins and Nicklin Hames, but each waited until after the season to make a decision. Knuckles said deciding before the season was over has helped her enjoy all the moments she has with her teammates and giving everything each match.

“Every game that I go into, or honestly every ball that I touch, there’s no point to regret anything,” she said. “I’m just gonna go out there and leave it all out there.”

Kubik, Knuckles along with Hames and Kaitlyn Hord will be honored Saturday night after the match with Minnesota for senior night. 

Hord joined the Huskers this year as a transfer after playing four years at Penn State. Cook said has fit seamlessly with the team even though her time with them has been much shorter. 

“She feels like she’s been here for four years,” Cook said. “She works really hard. She’s low maintenance. She does her thing and she’s fun to coach and fun to be around. She’s a great teammate.”

Cook praised the seniors for being a major part of their success during the last several years. Hames played in two national championship matches, while Kubik and Knuckles were an essential part of last year’s national runner-up team. However, he wants them to finish this year strong to earn some jewelry. 

“They’ve been the face of the program for the last couple of years here, especially this year,” Cook said. “These guys need a ring, whether it’s a Big 10 ring or national championship ring – that’s the one thing that they’ve still on the table that they got to go after.”

Huskers Sweep Purdue, Face Wisconsin Friday

By Lincoln Arneal

The Purdue volleyball team came into the Devaney Center with a plan not to let Nebraska’s middle blockers beat them. 

During their first meeting, Bekka Allick and Kaitlyn Hord combined for 17 kills and a .615 hitting percentage. In the rematch, the Boilermakers fronted the Husker middles trying to limit their offense. 

The plan worked as Hord and Allick combined for four kills and three errors on 16 attacks. However, the NU outside hitters carried the offense and lifted the No. 6 Huskers to a 25-22, 25-20, 25-11 sweep over the 19th-ranked Boilermakers Sunday afternoon in front of 8,248 fans. 

“Wherever our middle went, they were there. We still can set them and kill the ball, but we didn’t execute very well tonight,” NU coach John Cook said. “Basically, what they said is we’re going to make your outsides kill balls.” 

Madi Kubik answered the challenge with 17 kills and a .311 hitting percentage. The senior outside hitter racked up 45 swings, more than twice the amount of any other Huskers. Sophomores Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause each added seven kills. 

The Huskers (24-3, 16-2 Big Ten) hit .192 for the match as Nicklin Hames finished with 22 assists, while Kennedi Orr added 13. 

Kubik said Purdue’s game plan made running their offense a little more challenging, but that created one-on-one opportunities elsewhere. 

“I think Nicklin does a great job of spreading our offense out and running a lot of different things and getting people in good positions,” she said. 

While Whitney Lauenstein might have had a forgettable night attacking – she had just four kills and six errors – she made up for it from the service line. 

With NU trailing 22-21 in the first set, the sophomore opposite hitter served the final four points and ended it with an ace. In the second set, she was at the service line for a 6-0 run that put NU in front for good with a 20-15 advantage. Then, she served six straight points in the third set to put the Huskers up 15-6. 

In total, Lauenstein served 22 times for 17 NU points, including one ace, while committing just one service error. 

“The big turnaround on all three games was Whitney went on big serving runs, and I thought that was the key to the match,” Cook said. “It’s a great night for Whitney because she was struggling hitting but found other ways to help our team win.”

The Boilermakers started each of the first two sets strong as they led 4-1 in the first set and were up 12-6 in the second before the Huskers regrouped. 

“Purdue came out firing on all cylinders and it threw us off with how well they were playing,” Cook said. “We had to get off the ropes and find a way to get back into it.”

Nebraska rallied around its defense to take control of the match. The Boilermakers used a lot of tips and roll shots for kills in the first set, but the Huskers adjusted and covered those better as the match wore on. After hitting .186 in the first set, Purdue was negative in each of the next two and finished with a .016 hitting percentage, a season-low.

Krause said they talked after the first set about not letting any off-speed shots get the best of them. 

“Once we could stop their whole team’s junk or funky stuff coming over – really get all the miss hits, not let them get any easy points and make them earn every single point – that’s what kind of shifted our defense,” Krause said. “You could tell they had a really hard time getting kills in the second and third set because we really turned on our defense.”

Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez led NU with a match-high 17 digs, while Kenzie Knuckles added 14. Kubik finished with a double-double as she chipped in 11 digs. 

While Hord and Allick struggled on offense, they each recorded four blocks. As a team, NU out blocked Purdue 9-8. 

Purdue freshman Eva Hudson tallied five kills in the first set but then recorded one kill and seven errors on 27 attacks the rest of the way. Her six kills were a season low and the only two times she’s hit negative this season were both against NU.

Maddy Chinn paced the Boilermakers (19-9, 10-8) with seven kills. Ravin Colvin added six kills, five blocks and an ace.

With the win, the Huskers set up a showdown on Friday night against No. 3 Wisconsin. NU needs a win to have a chance of a share of the conference crown, as the Badgers are one game up. On Saturday, the Huskers close the regular season against fourth-place and ninth-ranked Minnesota. 

“This is what we’ve spent all year getting to this point where we’re playing for championships,” Cook said. “The Big 10 wanted this, and they’ve got all the teams lined up.”

Huskers sweep Iowa; Terps down Buckeyes: Nebraska Now Controls Own Destiny In League Race

By Lincoln Arneal

Following a disappointing loss at Ohio State, Nebraska didn’t suffer a hangover on Friday night. 

Nebraska (23-3, 15-2) took care of business on the road with a 25-14, 25-17, 25-14 sweep over the Hawkeyes in front of a crowd of 3,987 fans at the Xtream Arena. 

The sixth-ranked Huskers hit .330 while limiting Iowa to .093, the 11th time an NU opponent has hit below .100 this season. 

“We never played real super clean here, but I thought our team did a really nice job of staying with it,” NU coach John Cook said in a postgame radio interview. “They made some runs and we made some runs right back.”

After entering the Ohio State match for the final two sets, Kennedi Orr earned the start against Iowa as the Huskers’ second setter. The 6-foot sophomore tallied six assists in the first set and helped spark a 7-0 run that gave the Huskers a 13-5 run. 

She finished the match with 11 assists and eight digs. Cook said Orr played great defense and developed a solid connection with her substitution partner, Lindsay Krause, who finished with 10 kills and a .471 hitting percentage. 

In addition to her setting, Orr also was effective at the service line in the third set after struggling earlier this season. 

“I was really proud of her tonight,” Cook said. “Hopefully, we’re gonna build on this, and Kennedi is just going to keep rising like a rocket.”

Iowa’s best effort came in the second set as they had the score tied at 14-all. However, the Huskers closed the set by winning 11 of the next 14 rallies. 

The third set followed a similar pattern as the Hawkeyes (8-20, 2-15) hung close early, but NU pulled away with a 9-2 run to take a 22-12 lead. 

Madi Kubik led the Husker offense with 14 kills on a .407 hitting percentage while Ally Batenhorst added 11 kills. 

Nicklin Hames added 15 assists and six digs, while libero Lexi Rodriguez contributed 19 digs and seven assists. Kubik almost recorded a double-double with nine digs. 

The only part of the Huskers offense that didn’t click was its middle attack. Bekka Allick finished with three kills on seven attacks while Kaitlyn Hord recorded one kill and two errors on seven swings. 

Cook said NU never got into a rhythm passing and pulled their setters off the net often, and a couple missed connections early took away the setters’ confidence in setting the middles. In addition, Iowa’s defense was sitting in the Huskers’ middle whenever they had a good pass, trying to limit their effectiveness.

“It’s just hard to run middle from there,” he said. “But we’ll figure it out. We had a great week of practice emphasizing running middle and they did awesome. I thought we would light it up today in the middle but it seemed like every time we ran middle there were two blockers on it.”

The Huskers finished with five aces compared to just four errors. Cook said the defense made some great adjustments to Iowa’s servers. The match started with an ace by Hames and Iowa followed up with an ace two points later. 

“Our passers did a really nice job of fighting through on really tough serves,” Cook said. “They got us short on a couple that we had to sprawl out for, and of course, we blew them up pretty good. We had some nice runs on them.”

Iowa was led by eight kills and three blocks from Amiya Jones. 

While Nebraska was cruising to another sweep, they received good news from the other side of the conference as Maryland upset No. 5 Ohio State in four sets. The Terrapins recorded 16 blocks and limited OSU to hitting .153. National player of the week Emily Londot finished with 10 kills and 15 errors for the Buckeyes. 

The loss by the Buckeyes drops them into a second-place tie with NU, a game behind Wisconsin. The Huskers control their destiny in the Big Ten title race with home matches against No. 19 Purdue, No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 9 Minnesota remaining. 

The road ahead won’t be easy, and Cook said Ohio State’s loss shows that there are no off nights in the Big Ten.

“This is what we try to develop in our program, in our mindset and our culture – you got to bring it every night,” he said. “We could have had a mental letdown. I was worried how we were going to play tonight, but we had a great week of practice and our players got after it. They came in and went to work.”